Old dreams, new dreams

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Where to? Tokyo has long been on my list…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.

If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!

But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.

Then what?

My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.

I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.

 

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We only get so much time….

 

The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.

I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.

New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.

Will any of these happen? Who knows?

It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.

It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.

 

Nap time!

 

What does it take to do good journalism?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

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Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

Everyone needs an editor

By Caitlin Kelly

Like those narrow bits of whalebone that once shaped women’s corsets — invisible aids to visible beauty — editors save writers daily.

They catch our grammatical errors, query an assertion, challenge an opinion. The very best are gentle-but-firm and help us create terrific material. The worst are butchers.

Yet writers very rarely publicly acknowledge how essential their skills are to our more obvious success.

 

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Each story we read has been edited,  some more rigorously than others…

 

One editor recently made a whole pile of new enemies on Twitter when he declared that  most of the writing he reads is only made useful thanks to editors. That self-satisfied burn was not appreciated.

But a recent New York Times Book Review piece recounted how zealously and carefully one writer had been managed by her book editor. And nowhere does she explain (!) that this is now as rare and luxurious an experience as having a car and driver, butler or valet, let alone all three. I know no writers getting this kind of literal hands-on attention to their work.

By Ruth Reichl:

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The late editor, Susan Kamil, sat beside her in her office, going over Reichl’s work line by line. This, in an era when even agents have little time or energy to spare the plebes, let alone the P & L-obsessed editors they hope to sell us to.

 

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I won’t soon forget getting the notes on my last book, sitting in a motel room in Victoria, B.C. while visiting my mother. My editor, who had previously worked for NASA (it is rocket science!) liked chapters 11 and 12.

What about Chapters 1 through 10?

I panicked. That is a lot of revision!

A dear friend, also a writer, gave me very good advice: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

Thanks to Courtney’s calm and thorough suggestions — certainly not in her office, nor line by line or page by page — we got it done. Then, just as the book was going into final production, we went at it again, tweaking a few pages.

Digital story-telling makes it too easy to later fix a published mistake. Book editing is a high-wire act in comparison.

This past summer offered me the highs and lows of what it means to work with an editor. One, a rude young woman with very little understanding of the collaborative nature of this endeavor, left me shaking with frustration. Another, a man my age, has offered some direction, but has given me tremendous autonomy on a major story, the most complex in many years.

Like all writers, I will be nervous until it goes live, hopefully in the next few months.

That final moment of submission — yes, double meaning — is always scary!

 

Home again

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Much catching up to do!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I hadn’t been gone that long — 23 days — since my six-week vacation in Europe in the summer of 2017, a big splurge worth every penny.

This trip to Canada involved stops in six cities and towns, and eight places I laid my head at night. Jose and I drove up to Ontario from Tarrytown and worked together on a story for the first time, he taking photos and I doing many interviews.

We were lucky and grateful to stay with friends in four of these, saving money on food and lodging and enjoying renewing our friendships. I only get back to Toronto maybe once a year.

Jose drove home and back to work, then I had a solo week in Toronto, meeting with some very high level sources, so was a bit nervous but it went well. The final four days were time to relax and enjoy the city: St. Lawrence Market, a great Italian restaurant called Terroni and three new younger women friends I met at Fireside.

On top of that, I was dealing with a topical treatment for a skin cancer on my right shin, gout (!) and joint pain from the medication I have to take to reduce the risk of another breast cancer. And 80-degree heat.

But I soldiered on.

 

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A view of Niagara Falls as our bus headed south to the train

 

The pain in my leg was excruciating — so this week, at home I finally saw the doctor to find my leg was infected, hence terrible pain. Now on antibiotics.

Home, grateful for silence and my daily and weekly routines.

I’ve lived in this one-bedroom apartment half my life now, but I am always glad to return to it.

 

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Somewhere in upstate New York — it’s a 13-hour journey from Toronto, with two of them spent at the U.S. border — but some of it is gorgeous!

 

Home nurtures me for the next adventure!

The art of interviewing: 11 tips

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been interviewing people for a living — journalistically — for decades.

These include the former female bodyguard for New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on 9/11 (global exclusive), a female Admiral, Olympic athletes, an NHL coach, convicted felons and just regular people, aka “civilians”, people who may never before have spoken to a journalist and realized that every word counts.

My 11 tips:

Always start and end with a sincere thank-you for their time and attention.

 

Very few people have to speak to us, and for some, it can feel like an ordeal. The more warm, empathetic and human you are, the better it will go. Yes, some interviews are very tough on the subject, even adversarial. That’s also our job. But being an efficient robot is rarely the best way to elicit great stuff.

 

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

 

Nothing is ruder than waltzing into someone’s home, office, or life without knowing who they are, why you are speaking to them and how they fit into your story. Do your homework! It shows respect and will, always, elicit a deeper, richer exchange as a result.

 

Consume everything you can on this person before you speak so you’re easily able to reference their books, videos, TED talks, podcasts, essays, journal articles.

 

Obviously, if you’re writing 300 or 500 words, you can’t afford to do this. But a story of 1,000 words or more means digging deeper. Few moments are as flattering to an interview subject than letting them realize you’ve really done your prep on them and their ideas and accomplishments. Sometimes I go all the way back to college or high school yearbooks and friends from those years.

It only appears social.

 

A great interview can be conversational or feel like it. There are times I just lay down my pen and stop writing,  preferring just to listen, watch their body language and take a breather. I also, when it feels legitimate, may share a personal detail with them that’s relevant to the story and its focus. This can build trust. Why would anyone just spill it all to a stranger?

 

Allow at least 30 minutes unless you truly only need a very quick quote.

 

My interviews are routinely 30-45 minutes, often an hour, sometimes 90 minutes and (whew!) rarely, two hours. After that I am utterly whipped and so are they.

 

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One of my old notebooks — coffee stains and all!

Tape or take notes on paper or computer — whatever works best for you — as long as you are accurate!

 

Do what works for you. Fact-check!

 

Make sure, whenever possible, no one — pets, children, the mailman, an assistant, your cellphone — intrudes and interrupts.

 

This is a sacred space. Don’t check your phone! Create intimacy and trust. Focus.

 

Allow plenty of time beforehand, certainly when doing this face to face, to find the right place, settle in, use the washroom and steady your nerves.

 

We all have those “ohhhhhh shit!” moments — your kid melts down as you’re leaving the house, you feel ill, the bus/train/subway is slow or late or cancelled. Give yourself plenty of time to get calm. Your subject needs to feel confidence in you.

 

Ask them who else they consider essential for you (and your audience) to understand and explain the story properly.

 

If you’re done your job well, they’ll share some great intel they might not give someone less skilled.

 

 

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What’s the story’s direction?

If this feels comfortable, consider sharing the focus, length and direction of your story, and maybe some of the other sources you’re speaking to.

 

Some journalists totally refuse to do it. I do this, judiciously, for strategic reasons.

 

Ask them, at the end, what you failed to ask.

 

Always.

I also coach other writers to excellence for an hourly fee. Details here!

Ten tips for freelancers

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At its best, time for a long lunch out! This is L’Express in Montreal

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Some call it — ugh! — the “gig economy” as if we were all hep-cats pounding some drum-set in the basement.

Freelance life, if it’s your sole income, really means self-employment, running a small business. While freelance sounds hip and cool and breezy — being a small business owner sounds, and is, much more serious.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, but have done it for long stretches before that.

Some tips:

 

Choose your clients very carefully

It’s tempting, especially when you’re starting out, to lunge at every opportunity. It’s not a good habit to develop. People can smell desperation and will, sadly, take advantage of it with low rates, slow payment, awful contracts and abusive behavior. Do your due diligence whenever possible so you can avoid these toxic monsters.

 

 

Cultivate a wide, deep network of peers, fellow professionals whose work, work ethic and character you know well.

 

See point one! Without a network, how would you know? With a network, you will be more able to pick and choose which opportunities are best for you and your skills. Once you have a posse, you can safely refer work to them when you’re swamped, and vice versa.

 

 

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Keep at least three months of basic living expenses in the bank or have access to a line of credit.

Very few clients pay quickly. The best will pay 50 percent up front, or one-third, but this varies by industry. Late payments are a huge source of stress.

 

Know your legal rights! Read every contract carefully and amend them whenever possible. In New York State, the law protects freelancers who get stiffed.

 

Some contracts have become virtually unmanageable. Worst case? Walk away.

 

Negotiate. Every time.

 

No one is ever going to just hand you bags ‘o cash. Ask for more money, more time, a larger travel budget, social media boosts, etc.

 

Keep growing and building your skills.

 

Your competitors are!

Attend conferences, take classes and workshops and get some individual coaching. Listen to podcasts and Ted talks and YouTube. Read books. Take a college or university night class. The wider and stronger your skills, the more options you have to earn multiple revenue streams.

Yes, I coach!

 

 

 

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Get out into nature. Slow down. Rest.

Take time off!

 

Without rest, recharge and respite, burnout is inevitable. For all the putative freedom — no commute! work in a T-shirt! — this is often a highly stressful way to earn a living. Some people with “real” jobs, some of whom have paid vacations and paid holidays and paid sick days, get time off.

Freelance? The only people who know when it’s time to take a break is us.

 

Set clear boundaries between work and rest. Keep them!

 

I don’t work nights or weekends. If I do, I take time off in recompense. I keep a fairly standard work schedule, 10:00 a.m. to 5pm. I don’t like early mornings so will only schedule something before 10:00 a.m. if it’s really urgent — like working with someone in Europe (five to six hours ahead of me in New York.)

Get out of your lane!

 

I hate this new admonition — stay in your lane! All it does is ensure we don’t listen to, look at and engage with others who are different from us, in politics, interests and vocation. If all you ever do is talk to other writers or fellow freelancers, you’ll quickly die of boredom! Go to museums and parties and gallery openings and concerts and stuff your kids are into (Fortnite!) to keep your brain open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

 

 

 

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Remember in your heart of hearts that your skills and work bring value

 

Freelancing can be really lonely and really isolating. If you work alone at home for years, and have no kids or pets and your partner or spouse works out of the home, it’s very easy to start to feel feral and ignored. Make an “attaboy” file of every bit of praise and kindness so on days when everything gets rejected you recall why you’re good at this stuff and things will improve.

Here’s a recent interview with an American freelance writer, a woman of color.

Two new stories of American labor

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Labor Day!

As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.

Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.

It’s crazy.

 

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I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.

Then, no severance!

Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.

Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.

So, hey — try these!

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.

I can’t wait to read it.

Just one of its many rave reviews…


“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week

Here’s an earlier book on the same topic, from 2014.

And a new documentary,  American Factory, takes a close look at one American factory taken over by the Chinese.

From The New York Times’ review:

In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.

The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)

 

Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!

Row, row, row your boat

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Can’t wait to sit fireside once more….

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We leave this weekend for a much-awaited trip back to Ontario, where we’ll see and stay with five different friends — one, I literally haven’t seen since ninth grade — in two cities and three towns. I won’t be back home in New York until late September.

We’re grateful and fortunate to have so many close friends who happily welcome us, sometimes many times, to stay in their homes, sometimes for as long as a week, to share morning coffees and late-evening conversations, to catch up in depth and detail on one another’s lives in a way that no social media chitchat can ever provide.

We’re also eager for respite.

When Jose took the buyout from The New York Times in March 2015, an opportunity we couldn’t afford to pass up at the time, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew, more than he did, that in a chaotic and youth-obsessed industry like journalism, we probably would never have another staff job in it, or likely any other, and get stuck with costly health insurance.

Our applications — even with our industry’s top awards — go unanswered.

So we’re both full-time freelance, hustling hard to make our financial commitments — $20,000 a year just for health insurance is a huge burden, and not an item we can afford to cheap out on.

Much as we enjoy the relative freedom this life offers us, being able to go away when and where we can afford to, it’s also a real scramble. Clients come and go and must be replaced quickly to keep income incoming.

In our leaky little boat, we row hard every day, bailing when necessary.

I left home at 19, never with any option of returning when times got tough. My parents don’t offer help, financial or emotional, and Jose’s parents died decades ago.  I have three half-siblings and know none of them well; I haven’t even met one. His two sisters have their own lives and live far away from us.

I watch, in awe, when a younger friend is handed $50,000 by her parents…because they can, and another pays half a million cash for her apartment, also a family gift. (I was very lucky, in my mid-20s, to inherit some money from my late maternal grandmother.)

Today, we have no one anywhere to rely on but ourselves: our wits, our health and our skills.

We’re attending and speaking at an annual and unusual conference held at a camp in northern Ontario, called Fireside. The creation of two young Ontario lawyers, it attracts participants from around the world — no badges or lanyards, no wi-fi and sleeping in unheated cabins when it’s about 40 degrees F at night.

It’s a great adventure.

 

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The dining hall at Fireside

We’re OK, generally.

But the past year has worn me out.

This summer cost us an anticipated $1,050 from two of my projects that blew up due to others’ tantrums and a tiny skin cancer on my leg (treatable, I’ll be fine!) had me watching anxiously for months before biopsy, diagnosis and treatment, paying (of course) additional out-of-insurance-network costs for a dermatologist I like and trust.

So this chance to wake up among pals in a spacious, multi-roomed house — not our overused one-bedroom work/office/apartment — and have food prepared for us by people who love us, to rest, to not hustle every day, even for a bit, is a great luxury and one we are deeply thankful for.

 

We all need to be cared for at times.

 

Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.

By Caitlin Kelly

It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.

A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.

The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.

A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.

If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?

Nowhere.

If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.

A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.

 

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This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.

Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.

When they are human.

In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.

I began to dread it.

I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”

No.

It’s human beings.

The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.

 

Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.