As readers here know, this is an ongoing series, usually every six weeks or so, updating you on the joys and sorrows of life as a full-time freelancer.
It has not been dull, kids!
The good news:
I’ve gratefully had lots of work, challenging and interesting and well-paid — the trifecta!
I was asked to ghost-write for someone I knew in freshman classes at University of Toronto, someone whose own creative life kept intersecting with mine over the ensuing years — as she also moved to Montreal then to New York City. I had never ghost-written for anyone before but it was deemed excellent and didn’t even require a second draft.
Still blogging occasionally about pancreatic cancer research for the Lustgarten Foundation. I still have never met my editor, even though we don’t live that far apart — thanks to the pandemic.
Worked more on a story for The New York Times, which I’ll blog about here when it appears, probably next week. I started work on it back in December so it’s been a while.
We leased a Mazda CX0-30 last fall, our first time in that brand, and love it. While at the dealership, I picked up the glossy Mazda magazine and emailed its editor, based in England, to say, truthfully, how much we’re enjoying the car — and can I write for them? She and I did a get-to-know-you Zoom a while back. Several pitches now under consideration, and we might work together again as a team, Jose and I, since he is a professional photographer. That would be cool!
My income from some of these has been good enough I can actually just rest for a bit. We get our Johnson and Johnson one-shot COVID vaccination this Sunday and plan to take Monday and Tuesday off if we need it afterward.
I’ve been busy with coaching clients. I spoke to a PR firm in Ohio this week and next week working with a writer pal on three of his pitches.
My bloody book proposal is still not finding any success — YET!
It’s been read by five agents and one editor.
I sent it this week to a Very Big Name in our industry, someone I’ve met twice a while back, who’s published 17 (!) books on writing. He was very generous and wrote back quickly and very encouragingly.
So I’m on a steep and tiring learning curve — still trying for an agent and a trade house; starting to research potential university presses and self-publishing. It’s a lot at once to manage and it’s really hard not to just give up.
But when people who know the subject say: “This is important and timely and I can’t wait to read it” I am going to take this as sincere.
My last book was published in 2011. The publishing industry has since massively shrunk and consolidated, meaning there are fewer and fewer smaller publishers. To sell a book to one of the Big Boys now means you have to have a subject they think will sell a lot of copies.
None will look at anything without an agent….and I’ve been through five already.
But — goddamnit! — I also see what books are being commissioned and I want to throw a chair. Some are so banal I simply cannot imagine that thousands and thousands of readers are going to rush to buy them.
I try to be a good soldier and cheer on all those others but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to bitterness and envy. My first two books quickly found good agents and they worked hard to sell them to major publishers. Many agents now are not even accepting new clients and even those I am personally referred to or know personally can’t even reply to emails. It can feel very very depressing to keep banging on every door of every gatekeeper.
In the summer of 2017, Kim Wall, an adventurous, ambitious 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist made a last-minute phone call to Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor in Copenhagen. She wanted to ride in his home-made submarine, a potential story.
It’s the sort of thing many freelancers do all the time, without deep concern about the risks, as the rewards are obvious.
It would be her last.
He killed her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.
Now, HBO Europe has released a six-part series about the hunt for her killer, The Investigation, on in the U.S.
The show never once names him, referring to him only as “the accused.”
If you, as I do, loved the Danish show Borgen, this brings back two very familiar faces — Pilou Asbek as the prosecutor (who played the spin doctor in Borgen) and Soren Malling as the chief of Copenhagen police (the TV director in Borgen.)
We never see or hear much about Kim herself except through the characters who play her parents, who were as committed to her independence and freelance life as she was. It’s never an easy life, and one many parents find too worrisome and penurious, so this is an interesting piece of the story.
The show moves slowly, with many setbacks and confusion and a lot of frustration — just as much detective work actually unfolds in real life. Madsen was not tried and convicted until April 2018.
I found the show emotionally hard to watch — (I didn’t know Kim)– as it could easily have been me or many other freelancers. Our lives are full of such crazy adventures — many quite risky — we undertake in order to find and tell compelling stories.
And we go alone.
At 25, for a story about the many challenges of trucking goods across the EU, I climbed into an 18-wheeler French truck, met its driver, Pierre Boue, and set off from Perpignan to Istanbul (eight days.) We had never met or spoken. We were both single and he was 35. We. slept on tiny bunks in the truck cab, with no privacy possible. There was no Internet then or cell phones.
It proved one of the best weeks of my life and my career.
Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.
Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.
It’s not an easy show to watch, obviously, and some of the details are very grim.
But what made it most compelling to me was the police’s shared dogged determination to solve this crime and the incredible teamwork it took — including months of diving to find her and her belongings.
Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York
By Caitlin Kelly
This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.
I thought I had an agent!
I was wrong!
That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”
Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.
For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!
So the search continues.
The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.
But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.
Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.
Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.
I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)
I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.
But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?
Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.
This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.
I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.
I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.
My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.
I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.
And this payment arrived!
The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.
So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.
The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.
And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.
Who are our sources and how do find and choose them?
By Caitlin Kelly
Every time you consume media — in any form — you’re also at the end point of a lot of editorial decisions made while invisible to you, the end user.
We know that a wooden table was once a tree.
We know that a cooked meal was once a pile of ingredients.
But most non-journalists don’t know, and some of course don’t care, how their information arrives to them in the final state that it does.
I’ve been a journalist for decades, staff and freelance, writing often for national magazines and for The New York Times.
It may come as a surprise to you — or not! — that we’re not told by our bosses who to quote or to interview. Maybe interns or those very new to reporting, but, apart from a friendly suggestion, I’ve never been ordered to speak to anyone specifically as a source for a story.
This is good and bad.
It’s good because it assumes we bring sufficient intelligence to the work. It assumes we know how to do our jobs without micro-management and supervision — editors and producers are busy!
It’s good because it lets us just get on with our work without endlessly seeking and getting some official approval or green light to proceed. (Our bosses are busy!)
Despite the very persistent belief that we are told what to do and what to write at the behest of our (pick one! left/right-wing managers and corporate owners) we’re usually not.
But it’s bad in a few specific ways:
— It allows laziness
We will reach for the sources most easily found, certainly on a tight deadline, and those are often people we know or people who have already gained plenty of public attention. Just because someone is well-known doesn’t mean they’re smart, credible or the best person to explain a specific story. It often means they have the money, or their organization does, to hire a public relations firm ($5,000 to $10,000 a month retainer normal) to make sure their voice is loud(er/est.)
Pre-Internet, we had to work a hell of a lot harder to find and build networks of sources: no email, no texts and no instant results from Google or Bing. Now it’s the quickest option to return to someone already much-quoted.
— It allows persistent, if unconscious, bias
We tend to choose to work with/hang out with/consult people who make us comfortable. They look like us and sound like us and went to the same schools or live in the same sort of place. That means automatically and unconsciously screening out many good possibilities. Every time I start to report a story, I try to seek out BIPOC and LGBTQA voices and people living in very different ways/places from me.
How often do we even hear, on radio or TV, someone speaking English with a very heavy accent (probably sub-titled) — while we keep choosing and privileging people easier to listen to?
How often, if ever, do you see someone with a visible disability, like a wheelchair, being interviewed for a story totally unrelated to health?
–— It can be a real problem if our editors push back
It’s only happened to me once and cost me an editorial relationship at The New York Times (i.e. income.) I was writing a story about what life is like when one half of a couple is ready to retire but the other is not. Instead of the usual anodyne tale I knew they wanted (he golfs, etc.) I found a gay couple whose affluent life was suddenly up-ended when one of them suffered serious health issues and the younger partner had to get a government job for the health benefits. I found and offered a real story of real struggle and real adaptation. Not wanted.
— We automatically self-censorand choose sources our bosses will like
We know who our employer’s ideal market/audience/demographic is and it’s our role to speak most directly to them. At The New York Times, as with some others, there’s too often a default to affluent voices, if not the wealthy.
This also means that women over 40, let alone 60 or 70, remain basically invisible and inaudible because women’s magazine’s demo’s (the very narrow demographic appealing to its advertisers) is 18-35. You heard that right. There have been very, very few magazines that acknowledge and feature older women (36 is older?!) and they’re long gone, like Mirabella and MORE. If you read AARP magazine or its tabloid bulletin, all older women and men (50+) are presumed to care about are money scams, Medicare and aging celebrities. UGH.
— It’s a problem when we’re not paying close attention
One way a lot of reporters now find sources is through a service called Help A Reporter Out, or HARO. I’ve used it many many times. It’s a request list sent out three times a day to PR firms, universities, government, agencies and individuals.
It boasts one million sources — and 75,000 journalists and bloggers use it.
At best, you might get 100 replies. But, at its noisy and narcissistic worst, many replies are also demands for links to people’s books, websites, products and services — pay to play. When you need to produce many stories quickly, (and luckily I rarely do, as a freelancer), you don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to make sure your sources are diverse, even if you know you should, and even as diversity and inclusion are now a hiring and management focus for many employers.
Most of my stories are 1,000 to 1,200 words, leaving only so much room to choose who to include — while aiming for a mix of gender, race, age, expertise and geography. My recent Times Styles story included nine sources; I would normally include maybe six at that length.
And I was taken to the woodshed in a furious Tweet for not interviewing a person of color beyond an Iranian woman.
What if you were a reporter here who didn’t speak fluent French?
— It de facto privileges people who dominate social media (TikTok, Insta, YouTube, FB, Twitter, etc.)
Many people, for lack of Internet access or savvy or language skills or confidence or time — or fear for their personal safety — can’t just promote the hell out of themselves all the time. Those who can will therefore more easily command the lion’s share of our distracted and divided attention.
That includes overworked reporters, editors and producers. Easy access to a source who’s readily available often beats the 5th or 8th or 15th un-returned text, email or call (if anyone has the time and persistence to even do it.)
— It really (further) alienates and pisses off our diverse audiences who still don’t see themselves represented in our work
This is a big one.
If you’re not a cisgender white man or white woman, nor someone with a platform/organization/PR firm/ready access to journalists, it’s less likely you’ll ever get quoted or interviewed.
This creates lousy and lazy journalism. And ongoing deep frustration for every BIPOC or LBGTQA reporter or producer wanting to include voices that are quieter or less-consulted. Too often, a journalist turns to a known/respected/trusted Big Name policy analyst, think tank or academic voice to explain an issue, when someone whose own lived experience remains silent and invisible.
— The voices we hear from most also bring their own strong biases and opinions
It’s often too easy to defer to the demands for audience from the powerful and wealthy, always happy to sue and bringing threats of retaliation. Not a good idea.
One of the many challenges of working in a smaller country — Canada has 38 million people (one-tenth of the U.S.) — is sustaining a long, thriving career when you’re going to keep bumping into the same people over and over and over.
The way he was fired was messy — a coworker using a shared laptop found a tweet by Khan about Don Cherry, a legendarily loud-mouthed national hockey commentator (and one whose racist opinions annoyed Khan, and many others) — and dropped a dime on him to management.
Khan was fired, but an arbitrator (who I worked with at the Globe & Mail decades ago) decided the CBC had erred in firing him and even awarded him damages.
The CEO of CBC? Of course, a woman who shared my freshman year philosophy class at University of Toronto — cold as ice and imperious as hell even then. I kept running into her, when I moved to Montreal, when I moved to New York. UGH!
It’s one reason I’m so glad I fled Canada at 30 and never had to go back. The circles are just too small.
The second firing blew up big and fast — after The New York Times fired Lauren Wolfe, a part-time copy contract copy editor (known as a casual) for tweeting about her delight at Biden’s win. The Times’ social media rules are strict, and forbid anyone working for them, even freelancers, from expressing their political opinions online.
The drama landed up on the front page of an Italian newspaper. She had to keep asking her Twitter followers not to suddenly cancel their NYT subscriptions in protest and collected money via Venmo.
It blew up after a friend of hers, Josh Shahryar, outraged, tweeted a long thread about their friendship and her work — it got 50,000 likes, 7.5 quotes and 20,000 re-tweets.
Her firing, like Khan’s really hit several nerves at once:
— Both journalists really are completely disposable, no matter their skills or experience. Wolfe had done tremendous and difficult social justice reporting and Khan had only called out someone, Cherry, already very well known for his racist bullshit.
— I’ve worked with some real assholes. But having a coworker rat you out to management? Ugh. Khan, like Wolfe, was a journalist and also a human being expressing a widely shared opinion.
— It felt really hypocritical for major corporations to pillory two individuals when much worse internal behavior, by stars and staffers, has been tolerated for many years. And some of those people have not even been fired. If you’ve never heard about Jian Ghomeshi, for many years a celebrated CBC radio host, it says plenty about who exercises real power, with impunity, and who does not.
— It feels equally unfair to expect journalists (not copy editors, admittedly) to promote their work on social media but pretend to have no personal feelings about the work or that of their employer.
— Being freelance or on contract is very tough — the working definition of precarity. Nothing is guaranteed. You have no union protection, even as staffers committing appalling errors in ethics or judgment keep their jobs. Forget about even collecting unemployment. Wolfe, unlike many freelancers, lives alone and has no one to turn to for financial backup. (Although The Guild, the NYT’s union, says it is investigating.)
— The only way these two journalists — both without staff backing — got real help and redress was thanks to third parties (an arbitrator at CBC and the Guild at the Times.) Otherwise, see ya later!
— The way Wolfe was treated, given her passionate and proven commitment to social justice reporting, seemed especially shitty. This is a woman at midlife and mid-career who had made some harder and less lucrative choices.
This defense was written by fellow journalist Jill Filipovic:
Instead, conservatives (and a very few self-identified leftists) say Lauren’s tweets evince unconscionable institutional bias on behalf of the paper.
The Times, like most mainstream news outlets, tries to be fair-minded and balanced; that often manifests as criticism of a politician being ok, but praise being professionally inappropriate. The job of a journalist is to be adversarial to those in power: not supportive of any particular politician, and antagonistic to all of them. From that frame, you can see how these tweets would have raised some eyebrows internally at the Times. At worst, though, that makes Lauren’s tweets a misdemeanor worthy of a talking-to, not a firing offense.
It’s also worth taking a step back and asking whether the fundamental job of a journalist — being unrelentingly tough on and adversarial to those in positions of power — also requires being only a critic. Is there room for expressions of relief, humanity, and empathy within the constraints of fairness?
…This isn’t the first time the right has come for a journalist, and it won’t be the last. The highest-up folks at our most respected media outlets need to demonstrate the same kind of backbone they expect from their reporters. They need to refuse to give in to the outage mobs that derive their power from institutional cowardice.
Then there’s this — an excerpt here from a very rare cri de coeur from Jennifer Barnett, someone who played at the highest levels of American magazine journalism — and finally, at 44, just bailed, worn out:
I had the plum job. The top of the masthead of one of the most prestigious and respected publications with more than a 150-year-old history. I left because I blew the whistle on my boss for doing something unethical then abusing the staff and undermining the editorial process during which time I was assured he would be fired but instead he was promoted and after threatening me privately in his office, he marginalized me to the point of being completely invisible. In addition to being my boss at this prestigious publication, he was also the president of the principal organization in the United States for the editorial leaders of magazines and websites. Literally every editor of every publication was beholden to him.
My career was over. I was 44 years old.
Not long after I quit, he also left but he went on to be next in line to run the paper of record, and I was volunteering to write the newsletter for the parent organization at my kid’s school. He’s since been fired, or rather resigned, for another major public failing but just last week I was told he’s working with the new editor in chief of the publication I left to write for them. He’s going to land on his feet. At the top.
I rarely tell tales out of school about the shitty men in my industry. There are so so many of them!
And, of course, they hold tremendous power and win the top jobs and keep winning them while many of us just think….are you kidding me?!
Journalism and publishing are not industries for the faint of heart.
Even the present-oriented hunter-gatherers, it turns out, had to develop communal strategies to quash the drivers of overwork—status envy, inequality, deprivation. When a Ju/’hoan hunter returned with a big kill, the tribe perceived a danger that he might think his prowess elevated him above others. “We can’t accept this,” one tribesman said. “So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This practice became known among researchers as “insulting the hunter’s meat.”
It was not the only custom that aimed to discourage a destabilizing competition for status and avoid a concentration of power. The tribe also “insisted that the actual owner of the meat, the individual charged with its distribution, was not the hunter, but the person who owned the arrow that killed the animal,” Suzman writes. By rewarding the semi-random contributor of the arrow, the Ju/’hoansi kept their most talented hunters in check, in order to defend the group’s egalitarianism. A welcome result was that “the elderly, the short-sighted, the clubfooted and the lazy got a chance to be the centre of attention once in a while.”
Reading about these strategies, I felt several things at once—astonished by their ingenuity, mind-blown by the notion of ridiculing exceptional achievements, and worried that my failure to imagine taking comparable pains to protect leisurely harmony meant that my own brain had been addled by too many years in productivity mode, too many twitchy Sunday evenings.
I think about this a lot, as readers here know.
I’ve been working for income from my first part-time job at 15 as a lifeguard. I started writing for income at 19 and was selling my photos at the same age, sometimes from a street corner in Toronto, sometimes to the dubious tough guy old photo editors of Time Canada (sold!) and Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsweekly.
So working hard and competing for jobs and work with many others is normal.
Leisure — rhymes with pleasure! Treasure! Not so much.
Living in hyper-competitive, expensive New York/the U.S. makes rest problematic —- many workers don’t even get paid sick days or vacation days. Freelancers like me and Jose only earn income when we work. Social media makes an ongoing performative fetish of productivity (truly a word and idea I loathe!), never legacy or creativity or beauty.
Some people have wisely created passive income streams (like owning and renting out property) but that’s always intimidated me.
I lived to age 30 in Canada, and in Toronto, an intensely work-focused place. I moved at 30 to Montreal to escape all of it, choosing a regional newspaper much less prestigious (and less competitive) than the Globe & Mail.
I was burning out and I knew it.
The balance between work and rest, ambition and chilling out, climbing a career ladder or even stepping off it is an ongoing challenge. Americans, especially, are taught from earliest childhood to compete really hard and then to work really hard.
I very rarely see anyone legitimately exhort them to slow down, rest, recharge!
I’m nearing the end of my career in the next few years, really not sure when or how to stop. We are OK for retirement income.
Work has been my identity for a long, long time! Journalism, at its best, can do tremendous good — righting wrongs, taking the corrupt and lying powerful to account, sharing stories that help people improve their lives. I love being part of that.
And, I have to admit, it’s a thrill to produce work published to enormous global audiences.
The larger questions yet to be resolved without work are what sometimes are the basics of a good job/career — your tribe, the people with whom, if you’re lucky, you share values and ethics, in-jokes, jargon, institutional memory.
I’ve never been a joiner or club sort of person. Same with Jose. I need a lot of intellectual stimulation to not be really bored. Neither of us has hobbies — likely the inevitable result of being too work-focused since the age of 19!
Nor, like most of our peers, do we have children or grandchildren.
Ted is an American college football coach hired to coach AFC Richmond, a British soccer league — with no knowledge of the sport — because the team’s owner has walked out on his wife, and she wants to ruin the team by hiring an incompetent foreigner.
You don’t have to like soccer to enjoy this (although why not?). It’s got fun characters, some interesting plot twists and, for those of us landlocked in the U.S. unable to visit our beloved England, a nice way to travel, if only visually.
As someone who also finds many Americans too sentimental and effusive, Lasso is very much this — to the ongoing consternation of his team, his boss and pretty much everyone British he meets. He is absurdly, relentlessly kind and outgoing and supportive, to a point you think — ugggggh, saccharine.
He also faces some darker moments in his private life, so he’s a character we can identify with and find relatable.
He does have lots of adjusting to do to his adopted home, from different words and meanings for things (relegation?!) to — what is this?!— his immediate dislike of and disdain for tea.
“Hot brown water,” he says. I can’t look at tea the same way now!
There’s a classic WAG, Keeley, whose bubbly exterior conceals a solid heart, the team owner who’s kinder than she first appears and Nathan, the team’s waterboy who’s been utterly overlooked until Ted arrives and starts to offer him chances to show his stuff.
A local pub plays an essential role, and there’s an ongoing conflict between the team’s youngest — Jamie Tartt, who’s 23 and supremely talented and arrogant and team captain Roy Kent who’s probably 35 or so. It all feels pretty realistic, from the many challenges Ted faces of trying to navigate a wholly new culture — being called WANKER! by everyone — while also trying to manage his troubled marriage from across the ocean.
I was convinced no one would ever find it or read it or comment. Happily, I was wrong — WordPress tells me 22,000+ people have followed it and my daily stats show people arriving from across the globe, a real compliment.
I also write for a living, so the 2,315 posts I’ve so far published here have been in addition to producing dozens of paid/published articles and a book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
It’s very weird to…not write. For probably every writer, it’s how we process the world and how we feel about our time in it.
Our tools are simple enough — a device, our hands, our eyes/ears/brain, access to the Internet (not easy for many!)
But I’ve spent the past week not working for income but focused on a book proposal I’ve been trying to revive for a few years, about women and journalism. I’m being vague until/unless it sells. Writing a book proposal is a lot of unpaid work, done in the hope you will actually find an agent and a publisher and get paid enough to make it worth doing. Each step offers its own challenges — having an agent sounds so glamorous but I have been bitterly disappointed by quite a few, even Big Name New York ones.
Like dating, it’s a combination of intellectual and emotional fit — and knowing your agent will do their very best for you. Both of my books faced 25 rejections each before finally selling and today publishing is so much more consolidated it’s even more daunting for the mid-list crowd like me.
Two friends — within a week — including one who works for a major publisher recently urged me to write a memoir. So I bought a book on how to do that and might start writing bits and pieces. It’s tricky for every memoirist with family dramas and unresolved issues. (Likely everyone!)
My husband, Jose, is a photographer and photo editor, working freelance for the USGA and The New York Times; he’s also my transcriptionist! I never learned to touch type, as he did, so I bang everything out with only two weary fingers. At the usual $1/recorded minute one pays a transcriptionist, I at least owe him lunch!
So I’ll enjoy the next week or so, as many of you — I hope! — will as well: eating, napping, watching movies and fun TV, taking walks. Reconnecting with yourself and those you love, ideally at home!
Wishing you all a great Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa!
I also wrote for, of all places, Mechanical Engineering magazine, on STEM education and on water treatment. Both were challenging, fascinating stories to produce and — of course! — my editor then left the magazine. So we’ll see if there’s more work from them for 2021.
Thanks to Twitter, I was hired by the Lustgarten Foundation to blog about their work funding pancreatic cancer research. I’m not a science writer, so I was happily surprised to be invited to do this. It’s been quite extraordinary interviewing some of the world’s best scientists.
I also Zoomed into eight classes around the U.S. — undergrad college classes in Utah, Philadelphia and Florida and high school journalism classes in Florida, Michigan, California. Ohio and Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed it and the students were engaged and lively. It’s the only bright spot of this isolation — that there’s a need and a hunger for voices like mine in the classroom and there’s a technology that makes it quick and easy.
The year started with the best piece of work I’ve produced since my books — a 5,000 word examination for The American Prospect of how Canadians experience their single-payer healthcare systems. I grew up there and was a medical reporter so this was a perfect fit for me. Jose, my husband, accompanied me for two weeks’ travel around Ontario and shot the images, the first time we had ever worked on a project together.
Personally, it was a year — as it was for many of us — of social isolation, fear of getting COVID, of not seeing friends or family. Visits with several physicians made clear the urgency of my really losing a lot of weight — 30 to 50 pounds — which basically feels impossible. I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1 and plan to keep it up indefinitely. I swim laps for 30 minutes three times a week and am trying (ugh) to add even more exercise.
I don’t mind exercising, per se, but I really hate doing all of it alone.
Probably like many of you, because seeing people face to face is so complicated now, I’ve massively boosted my phone, email and Skype visits with friends — four in one recent week with pals in London, Oregon, California and Missouri. This pandemic-imposed isolation and loneliness is very tough and I’m sure even the strongest and happiest partnerships and marriages are, like ours, feeling claustrophobic by now.
I took a chance and joined something called Lunchclub.ai — which matches you with strangers who share your professional interests for a 45 minute video conversation. My first was with a woman in another state who was half my age — but lively, fun and down to earth. Despite my initial doubts, I enjoyed it. You can sign up for two a week and at times that suit you best, between 9 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.
In a time of such relentless isolation, why not?
Stuck safely at home, I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. Favorites, many of which I’ve blogged here, include Borgen, Call My Agent, I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Trapped, Bordertown and DCI Banks.
My mother died in a nursing home in British Columbia — very far from us in New York — on Feb. 15, my best friend’s birthday. She was cremated and at some point I will go up there to spread her ashes and claim two enormous pieces of art she left me. We hadn’t been in touch in a decade, even though I was her only child.
My half-brother who lives in D.C., a five-four drive south, had twins in May, (the only grandchildren my father will ever have from his four children), a boy and girl, but he refuses to accept my overtures to rekindle a relationship — having decided in 2007 he was too angry with me. I was not invited to his wedding and have never met his wife. Estrangement is very familiar within our family.
On a happier note, thanks to a much better year for work, we were able to spark up our apartment a bit — adding a new silver velvet sofa and throw cushions from Svensk Tenn, a vintage kilim bought at auction, new lampshades and framing some art. When you spend 95 percent of your life at home, keeping it tidy and lovely helps a lot with the inevitable cabin fever. The money we’ve saved on not going to ballet/’opera/concerts, let alone commuting (a 10 trip train ticket into Manhattan is $95) or parking in the city (easily $30 to $50 for the day) has been substantial.
We’ve bought almost no clothes or shoes — why?!
We have eaten out, usually once a week locally, and if the restaurant is large and empty, will do so indoors.
We only took two very brief breaks: in July two nights at a friend’s home in upstate New York and two nights’ hotel in Woodstock, NY. It was very much appreciated!
I tried in late October to take a solo respite at a small inn in rural Pennsylvania — and ended up deep in Trump country. It wasn’t my style at all and I left two days earlier than planned.
I’ve tried to read more books, not very successfully.
Here are two I did read and really enjoyed.
And I started re-reading my own work, my first book, Blown Away, published in 2004. It holds up! Now a 2021 goal is finding a new publisher to re-issue it and financing the time it will take me to update and revise it.
How was your 2020?
What are some of your goals, hopes and dreams for 2021?
— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.
— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.
— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.
— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!
— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.
— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!
— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.
— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.
— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.
— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.
— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.
I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.
I miss seeing other people face to face!
But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.