For those less familiar with fencing, there are three weapons: foil, epee and saber, each with a different style, in which different body parts are target and, as a result, tend to attract different personalities. Saber is for the hard-core!
In saber, the entire body above the hips, including the head, is fair game, based on the amount of body surface most available when fighting on horseback. Aggression is rewarded.
However unlikely — but true! — her presence in Rio this month is in part due to the first American women to fence saber in national competition, back in the 1990s, back when (yes, really) the governing body for fencing (old European men of course) said, “Noooooo, women can’t fence saber in the Olympics. Too dangerous!”
I was one of them.
Thanks to us breaking ground by fencing at nationals, U.S. women saber fencers have since gone on to win multiple Olympic medals. So damn cool!
When I arrived in New York, with no job, no family, no friends, I needed a place to go to connect with my new home. I’d long wanted to try fencing, as it combined many of my favorite things: French (many terms are French), a long and distinguished history, lots of terrific NYC competition, intellectual and physical challenge.
They say fencing is chess at the speed of boxing. It’s a fantastic sport, and I was lucky enough to find classes at New York University and a two-time Olympian coach, Steve Mormando.
He introduced a small group of women to saber and we soon began training twice a week (two hours each time), taking individual lessons and competing regularly at the local and regional level.
I loved it.
I went to nationals four times, each time getting eliminated just before making the final eight.
I’m thinking of taking it up again. I miss it.
I hope some of you will make time to check out the fencing and keep an eye on Ibithaj — Monday August 8 at 8:00 a.m EDT.
I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum!— to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.
As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.
One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.
Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.
I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.
Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.
I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.
The book’s Canadian cover
Tell us a bit about yourself…
My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?
When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.
After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.
When did the idea for this book come to you?
The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.
I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!
Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?
What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?
Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.
We’ve become a nation of voyeurs
If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.
The American cover
Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?
Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.
Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?
I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.
How did you structure the book and why?
My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.
One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.
Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”
We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.
What was most challenging about writing it?
The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.
The most fun?
Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.
Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?
Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.
After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding
Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.
Any reaction from your family?
My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!
What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!
That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.
We all have so much in common
I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”
One of my Twitter friends — an archaeologist in Berlin — and I tweet RHPS lyrics to one another. Because…friendship!
Few moments are sadder than a friendship’s abrupt and unforeseeen end — through anger, misunderstanding, a conflict no one is willing or able to resolve, a moment of no return when no one, (as the British say), will grasp the nettle and get through a tough moment to the other side.
A true friendship means creating and nurturing deep intimacy, sharing secrets (and trusting those will be held tightly for decades), daring to reveal your weaknesses and flaws along with your utter fabulousness.
A true friend — in my world — is someone who knows you really well and loves you anyway.
Some people come from tight, loving, intact families and, as a result, perhaps have much less need of friendship. They know they can count on parents, siblings, grandparents, even cousins, for moral support throughout life’s ups and downs, and sometimes even receive financial help.
If you emerge from a family like mine, poisoned by estrangement, friends are family, the people you learn to turn to first and always.
They’re the ones who walk uphill in a blizzard to get you to the hospital at 6 a.m. for knee surgery and who stop you from falling head-first into the bathroom door as you emerge from anesthesia.
The ones who sit with you as you weep through hearing the sound of bagpipes for the first time since they marked your marriage, now ended.
The ones who know your dogs’ names and the man who broke your heart and the woman you dreamed of becoming .
They never forget your birthday.
You know their parents and their siblings and how they’re all doing.
Losing one of these friends is a terrible loss, and one not quickly or easily replaced.
Some friendships outgrow their time and not all of them are meant to last.
But I hate it when someone I really enjoy suddenly disappears from my life, which has happened a few times.
After trying to talk through some troubling (to me) behavioral patterns, I lost three friends in rapid succession about a decade ago, all of them women I had hoped would be friends for many years to come, but they’re gone, and they’re gone for good.
I don’t regret it now, although it’s not been quick or easy to replace them.
At a recent wedding of a friend, I knew I would run into a younger woman I’d been close with about a decade ago, and — after a silly falling-out — we had not spoken since then. We had met through that mutual friend, who kept me up to date for years on K’s progress through life and how, since our fight, she had since found all sorts of happiness.
I knew she was now married, with a baby.
And she was there, glowing, with her handsome husband and photos of her lovely new baby on her phone.
I said a nervous hello, and it was, thankfully, an instant of hugs and reconciliation.
Some of you are fathers. Some wish to become one. Some of you love yours deeply, while others, like me, sometimes have strained and challenging relationships with theirs.
I spent much of my childhood, after my parents split up, between boarding school and summer camp. Even though his apartment building was, literally, across the street from my school, custody arrangements made it difficult to see him — and he traveled the world as a film director.
So the time I did get to spend with him was rare. I moved in with him and his girlfriend, later wife, when I was 14.5, and lived there until I was 19.
Those were our best years:
We played sports: badminton, squash, skiing, and went for long walks in the country, giving me a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and for being athletic and active.
We played Scrabble almost every evening, with Jack the cat usually stepping right into all our carefully placed tiles.
We drove across Canada, sleeping in a tent, with a few stopovers in North and South Dakota where we attended several native American pow-wows. At night, they placed food at the door of our tent, a welcome gesture.
We drove and drove and drove and drove — Canada is enormous and we had started in Toronto.
I left home at 19 and never moved back. He recently turned 87 and is still in very good health.
A scene from Dr. Zhivago, a film we saw together
Some of the lessons I learned:
He was always eager to rattle the cage of received wisdom, challenging every source of authority, and his films, mostly documentaries, but one film for Disney and several television news series, reflected that.
Life is short and wasting it producing mediocre bullshit is a terrible choice. It is, always, a choice.
Be frugal — but enjoy life
He’s always owned used (nice!) cars and spent his money on good food, travel, art. I’ve adopted his ways and enjoy my life as a result. I treasure my many memories and love looking at the the objects, photos and souvenirs I’ve collected over the decades.
Figure out your finances
He never gave me a dime for college or birthdays or graduation. Just not his style. So, from an early age, (and, luckily, I did inherit some money from my maternal grandmother), it was all up to me to figure out how to budget, what to buy and when and why, how to save and invest and not go broke, even in the toughest of freelance years.
A great lesson, even when difficult to manage.
You can indeed earn a living as a creative professional
This is likely the most essential of all, in a culture that both reveres the “artist” and all too often dooms him or her to penury and frustration. We had cotton years and cashmere years, some that were wealthier and some that were less so. But we never lost our home or felt terrified that was likely.
The world is filled with wonders
He returned from his work travels — long before cell phones or the Internet, so a month of silence — bearing odd bits of the world I’d never see anywhere else: Inuit sealskin gloves, a caribou-skin rug, a woven Afghan rifle case, badges from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There was an extraordinary world out there waiting for me to get into it, explore it and tell my own stories about it.
Women can do anything
I graduated high school at the height of second-wave feminism, and thank heaven for that! It never — then or since — occurred to me that women should or could accomplish any less than their male competitors.
His bookshelves, like mine, include art, history, biography, memoir, design.
Stay competitive, always
Pretty counter-intuitive lesson for a teenage girl, but also key to my ongoing success in the super-competitive world of publishing and journalism. If you have a great idea, keep it close to your vest, then sell it to the highest bidder.
“My Dad, father of four girls, made it clear to each of us that we should never be limited in any way by our race or gender, particularly true as it related to receiving equal pay for equal work. That’s why I’m so fortunate he was ahead of his time and also very intentional about discussing the tremendous importance of pay equity. Because of his advice and guidance, I am on a mission every day to use my skills, experience, and expertise to help all women achieve economic empowerment and equity.”
if all the world’s a stage, America is a prime player: a rich, loud, attention-seeking celebrity not fully deserving of its starring role, often putting in a critically reviled performance and tending toward histrionics that threaten to ruin the show for everybody else. (Also, embarrassingly, possibly the last to know that its career as top biller is in rapid decline.) To the outside onlooker, American culture—I’m consolidating an infinitely layered thing to save time and space—is contradictory and bizarre, hypocritical and self-congratulatory. Its national character is a textbook study in narcissistic tendencies coupled with crushing insecurity issues.
How to reconcile a country that fetishizes violence and is squeamish about sex; conflates Christianity and consumerism; says it loves liberty yet made human rights violations a founding principle? In conversations with non-Americans, should the topic of the U.S. come up, there are often expressions of incredulity and bewilderment about things that seem weird when you aren’t from here. Talk and think about those things enough, and they also start to seem objectively weird if you are from here, too.
Maybe it’s why I find loud voices, and the enormous egos behind them, let alone those who kowtow to them, so difficult and unpleasant. People who feel a constant need to draw attention to themselves and their concerns, certainly past the age of 12 or so, strike me as exhausting.
I’ve been taking a jazz dance class for a decade and enjoyed it greatly, until this year.
A woman, 48, feels compelled to talk, often and loudly, throughout the class, offering her opinion on everything from the music we’re moving to to the latest show she’s seen.
I asked the teacher, twice, to ask this woman to be quiet, to no avail. I know another student (British origin, interestingly), also complained.
I’m now looking for a new dance class.
I see the same phenomenon on-line, where some people are all-angst-all-the-time. Their neediness sucks all the air from the room and leaves me wondering why, as with the woman in dance class, they feel compelled to dominate every possible space, real or virtual.
The current Presidential election has proven the point as well, with Donald Trump garnering huge, (i.e. disproportionate), volumes of airtime and headlines through his incessant bullying and bombast. This week he added personal insults — “You’re a beauty” — to injury when he attacked journalists who dared to challenge him at a press conference.
For broadcasters, turning down an interview with a candidate is anathema to a news culture trained to pursue maximum access. Yet the starkly different strategies of the candidates are straining the industry’s bedrock notions of evenhandedness.
“The two candidates are running two different kinds of races,” said John Dickerson, the moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS, who has interviewed both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump on his show.
“At every opportunity possible, you invite both of them on to share their views and answer the questions of the moment,” Mr. Dickerson said. “But a lot of this is on the candidates. If they believe a point is better expressed by their surrogate, or not talking at all, that’s sort of their choice.”
Networks are seeking novel ways to maintain balance, like staging voter town halls that provide candidates with equal airtime; seeking a wider spectrum of on-air contributors and campaign surrogates; and bringing more fact-checking into segments, as Jake Tapper has done recently on CNN to some acclaim.
Still, the presence of Mr. Trump can be irresistible, especially in an election in which viewership and advertising rates have soared, generating tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for an industry threatened by digital competition.
Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.
As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.
It’s a real loss.
We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.
We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.
And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.
Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.
The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.
Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.
I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.
We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.
On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.
Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)
Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!
A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.
That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.
It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.
We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.
The word “friend” only became a verb thanks to social media.
One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.
It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.
It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.
Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.
Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.
More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.
Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.
So, back to true friendship.
This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:
Face to face conversation.
On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.
I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.
Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.
I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.
This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.
Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.
There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.
On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.
On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.
I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.
On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.
A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.
Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.
The gift of friendship.
And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.
A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!
There goes your “friendship.”
I’m slow to make new friends.
Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.
True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.
You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)
Intimacy can be challenging.
Some flee at the first sign of friction.
Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.
Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.
How about you?
Do you make friends quickly and easily?
Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?
This lovely young girl survived a rough, strange childhood…
This week is awash with reminders from every direction to celebrate your mother — to buy her flowers and presents and take her out for dinner.
It’s a time of sentiment and emotion and gratitude for all that nurturing and support, feelings we’re all meant to share.
Not for some of us.
My mother has one child.
She wants nothing to do with me; the details are too tedious to repeat here, but she can’t be bothered acknowledging my existence.
She lives a six-hour flight away from me in a nursing home.
She has plenty of money to pay for it so needs nothing material.
She has a devoted friend — a woman my age who is rude and nasty and bizarre to me — so she’s all set in that department as well.
She is bipolar and suffers several other conditions.
I lived with her to the age of eight, when my parents divorced and I was sent to boarding school and summer camp, arguably steeped in the kind of privilege that protected and cherished me and made me feel safe and secure and valued.
Boarding school meant sharing a room with two or three or four strangers, most of them young girls like me who didn’t want to be there.
It meant a life regulated by bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:10 go out for a walk around the block (neighbors set their clocks by us), 7:25 breakfast in the dining hall, seated at a table chosen for you.
We ate when we were told to and ate whatever we were given, whether we liked the food or not.
To make a phone call meant filling out a permission slip detailing the reason you needed to speak to someone.
No one hugged or cuddled or kissed us. That would have been weird.
Boarding school also meant having no privacy, ever — even the toilet stalls and bathtub surrounds didn’t reach the ceiling and girls would throw paper bags of cold water over the walls.
So I quickly learned to be private, self-reliant and extremely cautious about opening up to others.
Luckily, I loved summer camp and looked forward to it every year.
But this life meant I spent little time with my mother; I lived with her full-time only in Grades 6 and 7.
She threw great birthday parties and we enjoyed a comfortable life. Over the years, living very far away from her, I saw her once a year or so.
She taught me a variety of skills: how to be frugal, how to travel safely and alone, how to set a pretty table with linen napkins and candles, to read widely and voraciously.
But I’m not sure she really ever wanted to be someone’s mother; her own mother was often a selfish monster to her, although very kind to me.
Then I left her care forever when I was 14 after she had a breakdown in Mexico, where we were living. I couldn’t take how scared this made me feel.
She inherited money so, in my early 20s, she traveled the world alone for years.
The only time I saw her was flying, at her expense, to wherever she was at the time — Fiji, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica. Some of the trips were terrific, others less so.
If I didn’t get on a plane and go to her, I would not have seen her.
I learned to do what she wanted.
It all looked so glamorous from the outside.
But she had many breakdowns and hospitalizations, starting when I was 12 and continuing for decades. As her only child, I had to make snap decisions about her care with no outside advice or guidance. It was exhausting and overwhelming.
I rarely told anyone. What would I have said?
She drank. She had multiple health crises. She had no male companions and few close friends interested in helping out.
We later had about a decade where we got along, seeing one another once a year or so while exchanging regular, loving letters and phone calls and birthday cards and Christmas gifts.
For the past six years, we have had no contact and likely never will again.
This makes me sad and angry.
When I see women enjoying their daughters, and vice versa, my heart hurts.
If you and your mother love one another, this is a great gift.
If you have children — which I don’t, by choice — cherish their love for you and devotion to you. Savor it and protect it.
Millions of people hate Mother’s Day, for a good reason.
And reasons usually only our very closest friends ever really understand.
It’s socially taboo to not love your mother deeply, these days professing it loudly and repeatedly over social media.
Every day I see a new book or article exhorting us all to fail — and enjoy it.
Like it’s really fun and comforting and the sort of thing you just can’t wait to blog about or tweet about or post an Instagram image of you at the elevator holding your cardboard box with all your shit in it after doing the walk of shame from your desk when they’ve just canned you.
Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.
A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.
Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.
Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.
Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.
But I’m damn glad it’s 2016, because 2015 really kicked my ass in some new and excruciating ways.
Because four in a year, (and these are only a few of the bigger ones, the ones I’ll even admit to here), is a shit-ton of failure in my world.
Kelly’s don’t fail.
So that’s an issue right there.
I hate the tired phrase “comfort zone” — and yet I wholeheartedly agree with the premise we all need to flee ours, often, to try new things, stretch our wings, learn new skills and behaviors.
Failure Number One
I was hired to teach two classes a day, one day a week, at a schmancy private college, the kind where the rich kids fly home to Asia on long weekends and everyone dyes their hair purple and septum rings are de rigueur.
I had previously taught at several New York City-area colleges, no novice. I read up on millennials and what to expect.
This was different.
Tuition there runs a cool $60,000 a year, to study high-earning fields like…writing.
I loved the first semester, grateful for lively students who were warm and hard-working. What’s not to like? Half of them arrived each week 20 minutes before class began just to hang out. I really enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, not just a pile ‘o papers to grade.
The second semester was…not that. Suffice to say it started badly and ended much worse. I don’t teach there anymore and I wouldn’t if it were the last income source on earth. An MIA dean made it even more difficult.
Lesson learned:Adjunct teachers, especially of writing and especially in New York City, are more disposable than Kleenex. Without solid institutional support — of any kind! — it’s impossible to navigate complex scenarios you’ve never faced before.
Failure Number Two
I take on a web-writing assignment for a large charity, excited to work on something I believe in for people whose work I respect. The fee is fine and the people seem pleasant.
But they’ve never worked with an outside writer before and it becomes increasingly clear that they have no idea how to manage my time effectively, both being vague and micromanage-y all at once.
It gets worse week by week until finally it’s one Friday at 5:30 p.m. and we politely and cordially enough call it a day.
I lose $4,000 worth of anticipated income by failing to complete that project, and feel like a fool for not realizing how complex it would be.
Lesson learned: Ask a lot more questions before committing to a project, especially one that’s going to be edited by so many people.
Failure Number Three
I congratulate someone I know, vaguely, on Facebook about a great new managerial role he recently assumed.
Within a month, to my great surprise, he’s hired me to manage two complex, multi-part projects. The potential income is excellent and the content challenging. It does look a little hairy, but I’m a quick learner.
So I thought.
His managerial style proves to be a pendulum between charm and bullying. Our communication is both excessive and insufficient to our needs.
And the writers I need to hire and contract for work are fearful — naturally, given the state of our industry now — that they won’t be paid or paid quickly.
I reassure them, but with no sure knowledge of this man’s business ethics, or that of his employer. Which makes me very anxious indeed; he’s only one client, while my wide network of trusted colleagues is what keeps me working year after year thanks to their referrals. I don’t want to inadvertently screw anyone over!
Within weeks, I’m debating how soon to walk away, but hating the idea of letting down a large team — our initial meeting, (hello, warning sign) included 25 people.
I’m also hugely relieved — and out at least a month’s income because I’ve been 100 percent focused on this thing, not marketing elsewhere.
Lesson learned: If a job or assignment feels this wrong within days, let alone weeks, it probably is. If someone lashes out at me, I don’t care how much they’re paying. I’m done. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior at this point in my career.
Failure Number Four
I’m asked to chair a 13-member volunteer committee for a registered charity, a board I’ve served on already for six years.
I’m passionate about the mission. I have a ton of ideas and am really excited to see what we can do to advance its goals and make its value much more visible.
I choose a co-chair to help, as I know some heavy lifting lies ahead.
We have no training in how to actually run a board or a meeting.
We do our best, but are soon, at every step, ignored by half the board or undermined and criticized by three women, all former presidents of it, who have very strong opinions. Nothing we say or do is met with enthusiasm, and some of it with serious opposition.
Not a great start.
I’m soon spending more unpaid time turning to others who run or serve on other boards for advice and help. Demoralized and worn out, I end up in tears.
My husband says — just leave.
We spend weeks crafting our letter of resignation, trying to be polite but honest about why we’re quitting our roles, and the board — to be met with “I’m overjoyed” by one of these women who then sends the entire board a vicious laundry list of our personal faults.
Lesson learned: Walking away is often the only choice. No one can “lead” a group of people who have no interest in supporting your ideas.
Admitting I’ve made lousy decisions hurts.
Admitting to my weaknesses hurts.
Admitting I can’t take on, and master, new projects quickly is less difficult — but I now know for sure that opposition, whether aggressive or passive-aggressive, means guaranteed failure.
Admitting I was unable to rally the support I needed is painful and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what went so wrong.
We all like to succeed.
We rarely, if ever, publicly discuss or admit to fucking up.
But we all do it.
I’m guilty of sometimes moving ahead too quickly, leaping before I look deeply enough, perhaps. As a full-time freelancer living in a costly part of the world, we need steady income in the four figures every single month. I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the perfect fit on every opportunity.
But I’m also forever eager to try new experiences, face new challenges and grow my skills and my network. If I stick to my knitting, that can’t happen.
It’s a normal and essential activity in retail — where I worked part-time for 2.5 years from 2007 to 2009, (and the subject of my last book.) An entire team of strangers, all wearing matching golf shirts, would take over our store for a few days while we watched in awe at their efficiency.
It’s a good idea to take stock of our own lives as well. So often, we just keep stumbling, or racing, ahead, too exhausted or distracted to notice the patterns guiding our behaviors. We’re all creatures of habit.
And some need a reboot.
As we slip and slide into 2016 — I’m writing this post during the first huge snowstorm of the year — I’ve been thinking about what to keep, what to ditch and what to add to my life, whether personal or professional.
A happy marriage
Thank heaven! Jose and I met 16 years ago in March after he saw my profile and photo on aol.com (remember?), posted for a story I was writing about on-line dating for Mademoiselle magazine, (also long gone now.) My headline, truthfully, read “Catch Me If You Can.” He did. We would never have met otherwise — he lived in Brooklyn and I north of Manhattan. But we both worked for The New York Times, he as a staff photographer and photo editor and I as a freelance writer.
A home we love
It’s been more than 20 years since I bought a one-bedroom apartment in a suburban town north of New York City, whose downtown towers we can see — 25 miles away — from our street. Luckily, we’ve had the funds to pay for high-quality renovations of our bathroom and kitchen and have made minor upgrades like a glass door to our balcony and lined custom-made curtains. As someone who spent ages 8-16 in boarding school and summer camp, sharing space with strangers in rooms whose design I couldn’t choose or alter to my taste, and a few years in fairly basic rental apartments, I love that we can create and enjoy such a pretty space.
Deep and abiding friendships
I’m so grateful for the friends I’ve made, worldwide, and for their support and belief in me, even when things are rocky; it’s the measure of true friendship that we don’t flee one another during the tough times. I love chatting with them on Facebook, Twitter and Skype, from Berlin to Dublin to New Zealand to Toronto.
The tedious-but-necessary habits of frugality
Ugh. So boring! But the only way I know to save money is to…save money. You can spend it or save it. If you never save, like millions of Americans who don’t or can’t, you can never, ever stop working and you live in daily terror of the next fiscal crisis. I’ve been working since I was 15 but didn’t start saving hard for a while. The only reason retirement is even an option is decades of living carefully and saving money.
I recently resigned as co-chair of a volunteer board I had served on for seven years. One of its members, an imperious and demanding older woman, immediately showered me with a Niagara of personal insults — and publicly — for my putatively disastrous tenure, however brief. QED, kids. Happy to flee such a swamp of nastiness. Same goes for anyone whose SOP is constant criticism, undermining, snark and whining. It’s exhausting to listen to, respond to and absorb.
Last year was an eye-opener, as I took on a few projects that looked initially pretty alluring, clear-cut and decently paid. Nope! They blew up within weeks, costing me thousands of dollars in lost and anticipated income, not to mention the emotional wear and tear of working with people who were bullies or micro-managers. Not this year, thanks.
Like that volunteer commitment above, which I struggled with for months before walking away. My nature is to be extremely tenacious, to keep going to the end, no matter how desperately unhappy I am along the way. That’s a decades-old habit and one it’s time to shed.
As my Jamaican-born friend said, “Don’t borrow trouble.” If it’s fixable, get it fixed. If it’s not, move on.
I suspect many women struggle with this one. New motto? “Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
My hourly fee for reading your work or advising you on how to improve it is $225 and I may raise it yet again this year. I prefer being generous, but after reading too many words unpaid, I’m weary of seeing young writers crow loudly on social media about their supposedly solo writing accomplishment — when in fact their weak first draft required many revisions, and many invisible and unacknowledged editorial questions and suggestions.
All those bloody unread books
They clog up the shelves and prop up my ego — oooh, I feel so smart for having them around me for all these years. But I’ve never read so many of them and I doubt I ever will. Better to box them up and sell them, as we’ve done so in the past successfully. Allowing me to buy new books I’ll actually, you know, read.
More exercise. Fewer calories.
I’m insatiable when it comes to exploring new places, while wanting to revisit old favorites like France, Ontario and California.
Whether turning to our trusted career coach, accountant or lawyers, when I need help to quickly and effectively resolve a difficult or messy challenge, I’m bringing in the big guns. Yes, they cost money. So does every lost minute of my mental health and focus!
More face-to-face meetings
I’ve vowed to spend at least one day every week — that’s 52 meetings — sitting face to face across a table with someone, whether for work or friendship. In an era of social media , texting and mediated communication, I increasingly want to see people at close range, and have them see and know me, not some virtual notion of who I am. Intimacy is ever more a rare and precious commodity now and I’m determined to add more of it to my life.
Attending more cultural events
A mix of live music, dance, theater. Art galleries and museums, as every time I do so, I come home refreshed and enlightened and inspired. My default choice, always, is going to the movies, and my best weeks I might see several films in the cinema. But I need to be more adventurous.
Gulp. Terror! I don’t even know how to read music, but a friend has lent me (!) a practice cello, now standing in a corner of the living room and making me feel guilty for not getting started.