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Cotton years, cashmere years — what full-time freelance is really like

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, work on February 17, 2015 at 1:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Many of you have — or want — a full-time job. One with paid vacation, benefits, a boss, colleagues. Maybe an office of your own.

But one-third of Americans are now working as I do, freelance, temp or on some sort of contract. At tax time, we look forward to a thick stack of 1099s, the forms sent to us (and the IRS!) by every client who we billed for more than $600 per job. We can also claim a raft of business expenses as deductions, from car repair to a new computer to travel to a distant conference.

I recently spent four weeks in Paris and London; while in England, I reported three stories. I plan to write off my airfare and some of my costs as well as I clearly produced paid work while there.

My last staff job was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest newspaper in the U.S. I had a big laminated press credential I wore around my neck on a metal chain. It showed everyone I was one of the cool kids, working press conferences and stake-outs and racing every day, sometimes physically down the street, to beat reporters from the New York Post and New York Times; (they always showed up wearing silk and linen — starting Times salary being a cool $90,000.)

I enjoyed having a paycheck, the job less so. I was let go in June 2006 and have been full-time freelance ever since, a sort of work I had done many times before then as well. I apply occasionally for a full-time job but my heart isn’t really in it; I’ve already worked for three big daily papers and had the most fun there one can have and get well-paid for it. (As many of you know, the newspaper industry these days is about as steady and viable as a whaling ship fleet.)

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

But freelancing is a way of life that some people just aren’t cut out for.

How about you?

You must hustle every single day. If you slack off, you have to hustle twice as hard (vacation, illness) to make up for lost time

Clients come and go: editors get fired, move to Thailand or Berlin, take maternity leave and don’t come back. Entire magazines shut down overnight. Relying on a steady set of clients means you better have a lot of them. I see them like a pack of sled-dogs — you need a bunch of them, all pulling hard, in case one goes down or gets injured.

You have to be self-reliant. Tech support? Supply closet? Training sessions? Hah

You’re the CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, R & D, sales, marketing, distribution, payroll and the janitor. No one is standing by to help you so it’s up to you to find, create and nurture those relationships. You also need to set aside some of your income for this stuff.

Nope! Not til the workday's done

Nope! Not til the workday’s done

Working alone at home requires self-discipline

No one cares if or when you clock in or out. No one cares if you sell a thing. It’s all up to you! But, on the other hand, no one is standing in your way if you decide to double or triple your income this year — a feat all but impossible in any staff job. Your earnings are up to you. But you have to put your bum in the chair and get on with it. I’ve only turned on the television in working hours during major news events, and now just check Twitter instead.

Your networks will save you, time and time and time again

Paradoxically, you’ll need other professionals in your life far more as an independent worker than you probably ever did in a staff position. Whether you need advice on contracts or rates or how to handle a PITA client, you’ll need to find, join and nurture a wide range of professional networks so you’ve got access to people you can trust when you need their help. You also have to give it! I belong to more than four separate writers’ groups — one with 2,300 women writers in it — and check in with them daily. I find new markets, ideas, insights and offer my advice when possible; what goes around comes around.

My desk, in the corner of our living room

My desk, in the corner of our living room

Social media matter more than ever

You need to find sources, fast. You need advice, fast. You need to boost your brand’s visibility. Your new book needs thousands of eyeballs. Your networks will come through for you – if you’ve been a good egg for them as well.

Mentor whenever and wherever possible

The freelance world is filled with clueless, helpless newbies. They can suck you dry! Give them your help when you can; charge for your expertise the rest of the time. (I coach, $200/hour.)

Stay healthy!

Making time for regular exercise, social events, lots of sleep and healthy food choices will keep you ready to work hard. I work a standard six to eight hours a day, five days a week. I very rarely allow work to leak into my nights and weekends. Yes, that lowers my income. It also reduces my stress!

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Have little to no debt, low overhead and a cushion for slow payments

The hardest part of freelance? Not finding work or clients. If you have skills, charm and hustle, you’ll find them. But even the biggest — sometimes always the biggest! — can take months to pay you. In the meantime, you still need food, rent, gas, health insurance, haircuts. A life! I have a $16,000 line of credit through my bank and two low-interest credit cards. But I never work without a contract and insist on payment 30 days after receipt of invoice.

Forget the word freelance. You run a small business

Too many people fantasize wildly about the incredible freedom they’ll have once they work for themselves. Yes, you will. But the romance fades mighty fast when your payments are months late or your work dries up (see: cotton years) or you end up, as I did in March 2007 for three days, in the hospital with pneumonia — from overwork and exhaustion. You must decide on your income goals and do everything in your power to make them real. It’s not a cute hobby working from home. It’s a business.

Your business!

Does freelancing appeal to you?

 

 

 

 

 

A very bad week for journalism

In behavior, business, journalism, Media, television, work on February 14, 2015 at 1:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

David Carr, NYT media columnist, dead at 58

As I blogged here a few years ago, journalism — at best — is a tribe:

The tribe, regardless of age, race, gender, religion or nationality, has time-honored rituals, the shared and inevitable scars we’ve acquired and sometimes discuss over a beer in Berlin or at a conference in Boston or at a presser in Brooklyn or Doha. The breathtaking self-assurance of some, that so often spills over into arrogance, hides the truth we all really know. Every one of us will err, whether it shows up in the paper’s corrections box or remains a private and unresolved matter of conscience. Within this industry, at almost any level of the game, there’s daily doubt and fear, confusion and pain — and, sometimes, great, shared joy when we’ve done it well.

No matter where you live or what you earn, if you yearn to tell as many truthful, fact-based stories to strangers as possible, you share a passion with other journalists that’s hard to explain to everyone else. People I call “civilians.”

The military is like that, I hear, bound by codes of honor and behavior, of hazing and terror, that only initiates truly understand and share.

Some journalists write about technology, hanging out with guys in hoodies. Others work the frontlines of wars and conflicts.

But, whether we’re a fresh grad or a grizzled 50-year-old, we all know it’s damn hard to get and keep a good job in our field — i.e. one that pays more than $60,000,  (many earn in the mid-40s), and where your bosses are still somewhat decent human beings whose judgment you respect.

If you, like me, have been the J-game for a few decades, you’ve read, heard or watched the work of hundreds of other journalists, sometimes with irritation, sometimes with envy and deep admiration for their access, skill and visibility. Many flame out. Some go into public relations or teaching.

A very fortunate few, like Brian Williams, a television anchor, pull in a cool $10 million a year. Most of will be lucky to ever make six figures in any year.

In the year 2008, 24,000 of us lost our jobs, so anyone who has one, still, is damn lucky and we all know it.

The past week has been a shitshow for our industry.

The death — of all things, while riding in the back of a New York City limousine — of legendary, 72-year-old CBS News correspondent Bob Simon. A man who had covered the world and survived many harrowing and dangerous assignments.

The death of female, Canadian baseball writer Alison Gordon, at 72, who, in her off hours, played (of course) in a band. She was the first woman to cover Major League baseball, beginning in 1979. I was offered a sports reporting job in 1985 and said no. I knew how incredibly rough, then, that ride would have been for a woman trying to cover what was still very much a man’s world. (Sent to cover a major league hockey training camp then, I watched every man there get a complete press kit. “Oh, we’re all out!” I was told.)

“She was relentless,” said Lloyd Moseby, who played for the Jays throughout the 1980s. “A lot of women that are in the profession right now should be very thankful for what Alison did and what she went through. She took a beating from the guys. She was a pioneer for sure.”

images

The sudden death Thursday night of New York Times media columnist and author David Carr, at 58. He had just finished moderating a panel discussion next door in the Times’ auditorium, went upstairs to the newsroom and collapsed there. He died that evening in the hospital, leaving a wife and three daughters. Carr, probably the least likely writer to join the staff of the Gray Lady — as a former coke addict — won tremendous respect from his peers, there and elsewhere, for his crazy hard work, sense of humor and no-bullshit worldview. Covering other journalists and their companies is a gig many of us would happily avoid; we like to be the observed, not the publicly-pulled-to-pieces. And where would he go if he ever needed another job?

One of his many bons mots, (which so many of us long to shout!): “I don’t do corporate portraiture.”

My husband works at the Times and knew David there; one day he shared an elevator with him. “How are you?” asked Jose. “Happy!” Carr shouted.

That, so un-Timesian raucous and, always, real, was Carr.

Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing; photo Jose R.Lopez

Hundreds of his colleagues gathered in the NYT newsroom for an hour to pay tribute; Editor Dean Bacquet on the stairs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger in shirtsleeves standing

photo by Jose R.Lopez

The newsroom filled at 3pm Friday for his colleagues’  many tributes to, and speeches about him, heartfelt laughter and tears. For a tough-minded, elbows-out culture like the Times, the outpouring of love and respect was unprecedented.

Here’s a lovely piece about him from The Globe and Mail (my first newspaper employer.) I’ve worked for three big dailies; Carr, more than many, knew and really appreciated what a fantastic, fun gig a newspaper job can be. I loved it and miss it terribly.

The firing of Jared Keller, the news director of Mic, a popular website, after charges of plagiarism. He had previously worked for Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and the Atlantic — which is to say, for non-journos, he had already enjoyed a pretty nice career in an industry pretty much in chaos these days. Why blow it?

The six-month unpaid suspension of NBC News anchor Brian Williams, for his inability to clearly recollect memories others had to explain to him. I normally watched his show but was appalled when, in his nightly news broadcast, he mentioned his daughter, Alison Williams, a regular on the HBO series Girls, appearing in a show of Peter Pan — with no nod whatsoever to their family relationship. Seriously?!

Having friends decades younger/older

In aging, behavior, blogging, life, seniors, women, work on February 7, 2015 at 2:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I'm young enough at heart to really want this Babar hot water bottle cover!

I’m young enough at heart to really want this Babar hot water bottle cover!

Is it possible? It is for Jose and I. Maybe because we have no children, nor even nieces or nephews to enjoy and hang out with. If we want to savor the company of people decades our junior, in a purely social setting, how does that happen?

For me, it’s been finally meeting a few blogging friends, women whose work I’ve known for years, and vice versa, but who’ve never met face to face.

Blogging blind date!

What if — we both feared — the other person was actually awful IRL? Had bad breath or terrible manners or was a nasty snob who edits her work so carefully that none of that shit leaked out into their blog posts?

I had followed Cadence Woodland, who writes Small Dog Syndrome, since she was writing it from a police department (what?!) of a “religious university” she discreetly refused to name in some far-off American state. I had no inherent interest in that sort of work, but her voice, then as now, was witty, funny, observant.

A good blog lets you feel the personality of its writer; if you like them on-line, then, it seems logical you’d enjoy one another’s company just as much in person. She and I then worked together for a year when I needed help with my freelancing business and she needed some extra income — and we got to know one another better, by phone, email and Skype.

But we still hadn’t met, until I asked if I might stay with them in London in their small flat.

For a week.

(Would that wreck it all?)She and her husband Jeff have moved permanently to London, so our first meeting was at St. Pancras train station, as I came off the Eurostar from Paris. Wearing, natch, a brown fedora. She flew at me with a ferocious hug. It was adorable. We sat down for a coffee and talked for so long that Jeff called to ask: “Where are you? Are you OK?” And we were.

She was all I’d expected, and more, moving at the speed of sound through London’s crowded Underground, touring me to all her favorite spots, from Borough Market to Portobello to Spitalfields. We had a blast.

This Moomin mug also makes me happy!

This Moomin mug also makes me happy!

I can’t decide if you have to be an “old soul” in your 20s — or someone with a very young spirit in your 50s — to have such a friendship. I’m not sure it really matters why it works, as long as both people enjoy it. It’s also, like any friendship, reliant on shared values, interests and tastes, whether medieval history, where to find a great lipstick or how to navigate ex-pat life.

For me, these transcend age or life experience.

Same with Mallory Guinee, a recent Carleton College grad teaching high school English in Paris and who blogs at May Meander. She impulsively invited me out for coffee while I was there, then thought “Oh…what if….?” We, too, had a terrific time, so much so that we spent my last night in Paris having dinner together again. She’s only 23, but has traveled to Mali, plays the harp and has a sense of the world that is far beyond that of many people decades older.

Blurry pic from the Cafe St. Regis, Ile St. Louis, Paris

Blurry pic from the Cafe St. Regis, Ile St. Louis, Paris

The other way Jose and I have made several friends in their 20s is through his mentoring of young photojournalists through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, an annual event open to anyone who’s a student member of NABJ or NAHJ.

While we’ve remained close to many of our “kids”, two of them — Alex and Molly — feel like our own in some ways. Both have spent many nights on our sofa, (we live in a one-bedroom apartment), and we’re in touch with them via Facebook, Twitter, phone and email. Alex just moved to Istanbul for his final semester of college and I’m hoping we can visit him there. Here’s his portfolio and hers; Molly spent all last summer traveling SouthEast Asia as a working photographer. Not bad for someone who is barely halfway through her 20s!

I feel lucky to know these people, for a few reasons. Selfishly, they’re just great fun! Like Jose and I, they, too are bright, ambitious and fairly driven, determined to carve out creative success in a difficult world. We’re happy to mentor them as well.

But, I admit, I feel out of step with my 50-ish female peers. We live in an affluent suburban New York county and women there have mostly followed predictable paths: early marriage, motherhood and stay-at-home life supported by high-earning husbands or their own corporate incomes. They live in big houses, drive new cars and dote on their kids and grandchildren. Few have traveled widely, beyond luxury resorts, or have taken the financial and social risks of ex-patriate life.

None of which I can relate to.

It’s lonely!

And, by my age, you have (ideally!) some life wisdom to share, about work, love, friendship. If you have no younger relatives, no one wants to hear it. But our younger friends are often hungry for advice and insight from a loving adult who’s not their parent or boss.

It’s an interesting relationship in other respects — we’re looking at (we hope!) retirement within the decade and our younger friends are still seeking their first or better jobs. I watch their anxiety and excitement over this with relief that I’m mostly done with that part of my life; they can see, looking at us, what decades of hard word and frugality can bring: a nice home, retirement savings, a good partner to share it with. I’ve also seen my parents’ lifelong enjoyment of younger friends, so this just seems normal to me.

How about you?

Do you have enjoy friendships with anyone decades older or younger than you?  

10 lessons creatives can learn from athletes

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, design, photography, work on December 20, 2014 at 12:39 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.

But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.

Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:

Dancers work through pain every day

Dancers work through pain every day

Pain is inevitable, suffering optional

We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.

Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?

It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.

A great coach is essential

I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!

Practice, practice, practice

I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.

Take time to notice -- and smell!

Take time to notice — and smell!

Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge

In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.

Stamina is key!

It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness  — is often what separates champions from also-rans.

What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?

No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?

Just keep writing (and re-writing!)

Just keep writing (and re-writing!)

Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you

Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.

Is this your best sport?

If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.

Working through pain is simply part of the process

We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.

 

 

10 must-dos for freelance writers

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on November 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm
By Caitlin Kelly
I've been writing for them since 1990

I’ve been writing for them since 1990: sports, business, real estate, you name it!

A few thoughts — I have been fulltime freelance, (this time, have done it many times before for years on end), since 2006; I live in the spendy NYC suburbs. I write for a wide range of publications, from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, More and websites like Quartz.com and Investopedia. (I also teach freelancing, writing and blogging, privately to individuals.) Samples and rates here.
I won’t talk here about your need to be a great writer or boost your “brand” but the array of other skills you also need to succeed in a highly competitive business.
A few thoughts:
1) If you’re simply not making enough money to meet all your costs, (and save money as well), take on part-time work and make sure you remain solvent by so doing. Babysit, tutor, dogwalk, retail — do whatever it takes to keep your credit score stellar and your bills paid, always, on time.
I took a part-time retail job in Sept. 2007 when the recession hit hard and stayed in it for 2.5 years until I had replaced that income and doubled it (monthly); people (i.e. ego-threatened writers) kept saying to me (since my previous job had been as a NY Daily News reporter)…”Oooooh, I could never do that.” Oh, yes you could. Get over yourself and make the money you need. Your landlord or mortgage company couldn’t care less if their payment money comes from the NYT or from….anything else. And, oh yeah, that grueling, low-status, low-wage job experience became my well-reviewed NF book , “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and won me a TV option from CBS for a sitcom.
malled cover HIGH
2) See point one — you never know what will happen if you dare to step off the well-trodden and safe/comfy path of: “I’m a freelance writer.” Detach your ego and status anxiety from your income, always. Yes, of course, be excellent, but do whatever work you take on to the best of your ability. Excellence shows and people appreciate that.
3) Do everything you can to separate yourself from the pack. There are thousands of us; one “secret” women’s writing group I belong to online has — (yes, really) — almost 2,000 people who self-identify as freelance writers. So figure out what you do better than anyone or more quickly or more efficiently (not more cheaply!) and seek out clients who really value those skills and will pay you well for them.
I speak two fluent foreign languages, have published my photos in major media, and have no kids or pets and have been to 39 countries, often alone — so I can travel easily and work in other languages. Many people can’t or have never done so. That wins me good work.
4) Be a human being. When possible, get to know your clients/editors as people — they, too, have pets and kids and birthdays and illnesses and surgeries. Send them nice cards and/or flowers. Check in with them every few months, and just ask “How’s life for you these days?” I did that for one editor facing very serious illness, someone who had not assigned me work for several years and I wondered if she ever would again. She did. I would have done this anyway. Your clients are just as human as we are; in other words, create and nurture your professional relationships with care and sincere thoughtfulness.
5) Don’t expect (too) much too soon. By which I mean, get a very clear sense of your current and true market value and work from there. Just because you want to be in a Big Name Magazine right now doesn’t mean you’re ready or the editor agrees. Ambition matters, but realism and a little healthy humility also have value, (says this native Canadian.)
6) Be positive, upbeat, friendly and confident. The economy is still shitty and shaky for many people and working with someone smart, capable and who will not let them down — no matter what! — is appealing to clients, some of whom may, realistically, fear losing their jobs if you screw up.
7) Live as low/cheaply as you possibly can. The less overhead you carry, the more creative freedom you have to take on and do interesting work more slowly — i.e. work of serious long-term value, not just buying this week’s groceries.
I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment this year in rural Nicaragua

8) Reach out for new non-journalism opportunities, every day: online, by phone, through social media, at events. Two of the most life-changing, fun, challenging and well-paid opportunities for me in 2014 came because I simply took a chance and reached out (i.e. cold-called) two major organizations I never thought might welcome my skills. They did and I’ve never been happier as a result. Just because we’re “freelance writers” doesn’t mean we only have to work for really crappy pay from struggling/cheap media companies.
9)  If you keep comparing your income to the Big Stars making Big Bucks, you’ll die. Just focus on what you can do, well and consistently. There is always going to be someone making a lot more $$$$ — and crowing loudly and tediously about it. Just do great work!
photo(31)
10) Have fun and take very good care of yourself — go for long walks, alone or with your dog or a good friend. Get plenty of deep sleep, including naps. Go see a movie or spend an afternoon at a gallery or museum. Eat your vegetables! Being a freelance writer can be terrific, but also lonely, isolating and wearying, leading to burnout. This is a sort of job that requires mental, physical and emotional stamina. Rejection is normal. Get over it!
Want to learn more? Want to boost your your freelance income?

 

How to survive the world of work? Develop “individual economic resilience”

In behavior, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, photography, work on November 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I still write for them, but for how much longer? Big changes ahead for that paper...

I still write for them, but for how much longer? Big changes ahead for that paper…

Here’s an interesting piece from Quartz.com — a site I’ve written for — about the three essential skills we’ll need to survive the world of work:

The way that work looks, feels, and functions is in the midst of a dramatic shift. Every time we have gone through a major shift in work in the past, we have had to learn new skills to support it. We had to learn the work of agriculture. We had to learn how to work on an assembly line. We had to learn to use typewriters and fax machines.

So the question now becomes, what do we need to learn that will help us thrive in this new world of work today and ten, 20, 30 years from now? From my experience, I see three of the main categories of skills as: problem solving, technology, and self-management.

To which I say — with all due respect — Duh!

At the turn of the 19th century it was the captain of a whaling ship or a carriage driver who had to re-invent immediately as technology changed around them, no matter what their past achievements.

Today, anyone working in what’s quaintly called “legacy media” — i.e. print — is learning to pivot as fast as they possibly can, regardless of their awards, education, age or level of experience. Anyone with enough years and income to completely re-train or upskill is doing so. Those of us with an antipathy to the costs and time demanded to re-credential more formally are tap-dancing quickly.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In this respect, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a family of full-time creative freelancers. My father made documentaries, feature films and television news shows for the BBC, CBC, Disney and others. My late stepmother wrote and edited television dramas and my mother was a print writer, editor and broadcast journalist.

No one ever had a pension to look forward to; negotiating for our full value was standard operating procedure, with agents and accountants a normal part of worklife. We never relied on anyone to “take care” of us financially, so I learned to be really cheap frugal with my income and save as much as possible.

I started my writing career with — yes, really! — a manual typewriter and an answering service. No internet, no Google, no email, no Twitter or Facebook.

I had to develop my “individual economic resilience” while still in college, as my freelance photo and writing work put me through it and paid my bills.

I’ve had, and sometimes really enjoyed having, a steady and healthy paycheck. But I’ve been laid off and I’ve been fired — losing that income overnight, sometimes with no warning.

Full-time freelancers learn how to manage money, or quickly flee self-employment, but learning those three skills is second nature by now. Any freelancer unable to create and sell their skills, over and over, raising their rates whenever possible, is not someone with IER. It comes with the territory.

Having said that…

images-3

A few thoughts on IER:

— How deliciously laissez-faire capitalist! We’re all just “units of labor”, individual mini-cogs in the enormous and rapacious machine of capitalism — hire/fire/repeat.

— How utterly American this is! Cooperation? Co-working? Finding shared solutions through a sense of solidarity with other workers? Snort! Every man for himself, boys  — and devil take the hindmost.

— Can you say “union”? Of course you can’t! Now that American unions are the smallest and weakest in decades — 7 percent private sector and 11 percent of the public sector — it’s a foregone conclusion that The Man owns us, leaving each of us to fight individually for what we feel (or do!) deserve in return for our skills.

— Can you say “confidence?” If not, kiss your ass goodbye. It take some serious chutzpah; (see that soothing phrase above “self management”) to know when, how and how hard to push back against your freelance clients or full-time employer for better wages and working conditions. In a crappy economy, millions of us have lost our jobs, our former earning power and our nerve.

 My biggest problem — the same one faced by millions of American workers in age of record corporate profits?  (See: “problem solving”?)

Stagnant wages.

From the Nov. 14 edition of The New York Times:

“We are adding jobs, but it is still a wageless recovery,” Elise Gould, an economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said, adding that average hourly earnings rose only 0.1 percent in October after no gain in September. “The economy may be growing, but not enough for workers to feel the effects in their paychecks.”

The story received 410 comments, such as:

Joining this story with last week’s about fast-food workers in Denmark earning $20 per hour is an illuminating cultural history lesson. Many of the recently hired workers in the U.S. story are part-timers with no health insurance who are earning below the poverty level. In Denmark, the common interest in maintaining a society that offers a living wage to workers has created a higher scale. While the employers in Denmark are willing to make a little less profit than their U.S. counterparts, they still do make a profit, which combined with the vitality of a work force of decent wage earners pays dividends across the whole society. It’s a matter of choice. In the U.S., maximum profit at all cost rules the land and the workers suffer.

How’s your IER?

The writer’s week: mice invasion, a huge new assignment, a bad fall

In behavior, books, business, education, journalism, work on November 8, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

What’s it really like to work as a full-time freelance writer in New York?

Strap in and hang on!

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Monday

My husband flies home today to New York from Texas, where he attended the memorial service for his half-brother. I meet him at Laguardia airport, a journey by car that costs more than $16 in tolls and $12 for parking. Some people wonder why I set my rates so high — costs like this are one reason.

I’ve been asked to come up with a projected budget for my expenses for an assignment in England in early January. It’s easily done, thanks to Google, but imagine life without it. We take quick, ready, free access to information totally for granted now, but I began my career long before there was an Internet or email or Google.

I call a client I last spoke to in August, and for whom I’ve set aside most of November to work on her organization’s project. That also means I am relying on the income from it. I call her — and she blithely tells me, with no prior warning, they won’t be doing it until February.

Another client referred to me who said she had almost $600 in her 2014 training budget to hire me tells me I had to have invoiced her last week. Now it’s too late.

Not a good start to the week, or month.

IMG_20141021_161704879_HDR

Tuesday

I read and grade the papers of my 12 freshman writing students; I teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’ve decided to mix things up and gave them a visual writing prompt, a photo of a WWI soldier and a photo of a WWI uniform. I gave them total freedom to produce 500 words, and the results are stunning: original, moving, evocative.

I confirm with my two guest speakers, one for the writing class and one for blogging, that they’ll be coming this week.

We have a mini-invasion of small brown mice. We lay traps, which I hate, but we live in a small apartment and I work at home. Co-existence is not a realistic option.

Wednesday

I start the day with my usual walk, with a friend who lives across the street. The fall leaves are at their glowing peak, so it’s a gorgeous way to kick off the day. I live 25 miles north of New York City, so have the best of both worlds, ready access to it, but leafy, quiet and more affordable life just beyond its borders.

More questions on one story from an editor. Sigh.

I teach my last writing class at the New York School of Interior Design, where I was a student in the 1990s when I considered leaving journalism for design. I’ve only had two students here, but have really enjoyed both of them, one of whom is working on a renovation of the Plaza Hotel and shows me some photos.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Thursday

It’s pouring rain so I’m in the car by 7:00 a.m. to drive to Pratt, which usually takes 60 to 75 minutes. This time it consumes 2.5 hours.

My guest speaker for the writing class fails to appear and I scramble to fill that hour by discussing the week’s reading — an excerpt from “Hella Nation” by Evan Wright.

My friend, in a neck brace (!) has traveled 90 minutes by subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but arrives just as class is ending! We pivot, and seven of my 10 students sit around a cafeteria table downstairs so they can still have a chance to hear him and ask questions. He and I catch up personally for the next hour before he heads back to Manhattan.

Another guest speaker, a friend of a friend, also arrives from Manhattan to address my blogging class. I’m so grateful for their expertise!

I’ve been negotiating a profile of a local lawyer for a major women’s magazine and scheduling time with her through her assistant; my editor and I chat by phone and email about what she needs and when I will file a first draft, December 1. It’s not much time in which to research and write 3,500 words! But I’m really excited. This is the biggest assignment I’ve had in a while.

I drive home, and arrive exhausted; as I’m walking across our driveway in the dark, I slip and fall — hard. My laptop (not in its padded case) skids across the wet cement and I bruise and scrape my bare right knee. Ouch!

I watch an extraordinary film on TCM from 1941, Meet John Doe, in black and white. The film begins with a newspaper publisher firing half his staff and bringing in cheap, new, desperate blood. Too ironic — my husband’s employer of 30 years, The New York Times, needs to have 100 employees accept their offers of a buyout by December 1.

Plus ca change…

Friday

It’s a cold, blustery day with thick gray clouds scudding over the Hudson River, which I can see from my bed, where I spend the day reading, napping, listening to the radio, drinking bright pink herbal tea and eating popcorn.

Sometimes you just need a rest!

How was your week?

10 reasons that teaching is tough (but enjoyable)

In behavior, education, work on October 26, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I’m now halfway through my first semester teaching at Pratt Institute, a small private college in Brooklyn focused on art, writing and design. My two classes, writing and blogging, one with 12 freshmen and the latter with four seniors. are going well and I’m loving the experience.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

But it’s a marathon.

When I stepped back into those two classrooms, I hadn’t taught in 20 years. I’d read everything I could about millennials, and arrived fearful of finding a room filled with entitlement and attention spans lasting mere seconds — a challenge with a two-hour class.

Here’s a sobering and powerful insight into how tough it is to be a student!

For any thoughtful teacher, it’s a cringe-making look from the students’ seats, and gave me a lot to think about.

From the Washington Post:

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way.

 

Here are ten ways I find this work challenging:

Teaching demands self-confidence

It takes guts to stand before a room filled with dubious/tired/hungover/distracted/nervous students, hoping to forge useful intellectual and emotional connections with each of them and to foster a collegial atmosphere among them. As someone who was badly bullied in high school, I find it stressful to be looked at and listened to, so the very decision to teach means facing and conquering that fear each week.

You also have to really know your stuff! When a student challenges you, hard, are you ready and willing to discuss the question with the full confidence everyone else is watching you as you do so?

Teaching demands stamina

It takes sustained energy — physical, mental and emotional — to teach a 15-week semester with consistent enthusiasm. You might feel ill or have personal issues distracting you. I have a 90-minute driving commute just to reach campus, then climb four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom, lugging books, papers and computer. I bring a large thermos filled with tea, and was heartened to see that another professor I know has an equally stuffed tote bag, including her large thermos of tea!

Teaching demands self-control

This is a big one. When a student hits one of my buttons — if I feel they’re being disrespectful, for example — it’s a challenge to remain calm and even-tempered. They’re young. Some are very immature. It’s my job to set the tone and keep things cool.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Teaching demands self-awareness

Every week, interactions with students force me to reflect on my own emotions and sensitivities. I try to separate my feelings from my work, but it’s not always simple or easy. You have to strike a balance between being too friendly or too stiff. While I want to be warm and approachable, I don’t want to be someone they feel they can take advantage of.

Teaching demands exquisite attention to time management

This is a big one. I do set lesson plans, but also know that when things are going really well, it’s best to stay in the moment and enjoy it! I recently did a “rapid round” — asking each of my 12 students to share something surprising about themselves — and we did it four or five times. It took longer than I’d planned, but it was so much fun and we were learning a great deal.

Balancing the need to communicate enough timely specific material, while allowing enough room for students’ ideas and questions, is a challenge every single week.

Teaching means not taking anything personally

Another big one, at least for me. I grew up as an only child and have been working alone at home for the past eight years. I’m hardly feral, but I’m not someone who grew up with the rough-and-tumble of a large, close family, or has a collegial workplace where I can reality-check my experiences. Having other friends who are teaching to turn to for advice is extremely helpful!

Adjuncting — which leaves us wholly vulnerable to student evaluations for our ongoing employment, little contact with my dean and none with my fellow teachers — is lonely! I’ve leaned hard on others teaching writing as well, a friend in Tucson and another in Minneapolis, to help set me straight.

Teaching demands emotional openness and sensitivity

I don’t have children or nephews or nieces. and grew up in a family with little to no bandwidth for my own struggles, so facing students’ fears and worries is new for me. I’m glad when they feel comfortable enough to share those with me, but not always sure how (best) to respond. Parsing fear/bravado/anxiety in them is not easy.

 

Having written two books means I have some idea what I'm talking about!

Having written two books means I have some idea what I’m talking about!

Teaching demands a deep, broad knowledge of your material — and engaging students in it

I’ve been writing for a living since I was a college undergrad, and can both recall my initial nervousness about my career and my excitement as I realized I could make a living as a writer. I enjoy sharing my insight with those hungry for it.

But knowing how to make my knowledge comprehensible and immediately useful?

Teaching means trying to fully engage a room full of strangers

By definition, we each bring different forms of intelligence and learning styles to class. It’s daunting, indeed, to discover that some of my students also struggle with dyslexia, anxiety, depression. Some are bored. Some are lagging. Some are happy to speak out, while others sit there silently, no matter how many times I insist that class participation is essential to their grade. I also think students need to own their education, not sit back passively.

I have to work harder to find ways to not just drone on and get them excited and involved.

Teaching means being able to pivot — whether mid-class, mid-term or mid-conversation

I handed out mid-semester evaluation forms recently to get a sense for what’s working, and what’s not. It helped a great deal and I made changes to one syllabus as a result. But flying solo means having to figure it all out on the fly.

Fellow teachers — and professors — what do you find most challenging?

How do you address or resolve those challenges?

The life of an adjunct professor

In behavior, education, life, parenting, US, work on September 25, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a while since I’ve taught college, which I’ve done at Concordia University in Montreal, Pace University in New York and elsewhere. This fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I’m teaching a two-hour writing class to freshmen and a two-hour blogging class to seniors.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I work as an adjunct, i.e. someone hired to work only part-time, with no benefits or security or chance of attaining a full-time position. I’m paid a set fee, negotiated in advance with the dean, paid every few weeks.

In return, I offer my skills, experience, wisdom and advice. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a locker. (I do have a mailbox.) I can make photocopies for my classes free.

I don’t live on, or anywhere near, campus, which means a two-hour commute each way and my physical unavailability to students between classes, held once a week.

If I want to meet with students — which, technically, I’m not paid to do — it’s on my own time and in the cafeteria. If they want additional advice, or just a chance to chat, it needs to be then, (when I also need to rest and recharge between classes!), or by email or phone.

I risk looking aloof and uncaring, yet my re-hiring, as it does for many adjuncts today, relies on student evaluations. So does my income.

Dilemma!

Should I hand out high grades like candy bars on Hallowe’en to placate them?

Grade harshly, if fairly, to prepare them for the reality of life as a working writer?

Minimize my time and energy out of the classroom to save both for other revenue streams, and for my own life?

Give them the most possible to prove my commitment to them; (see: student evaluations)?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don't they?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don’t they?

The irony?

Most undergraduate students have no idea what an adjunct is, or why we’re there — (cheap! lots of daily practical experience to share! plentiful labor supply!) — or why we might view them and their school somewhat differently than those with tenure or working towards it.

To them, we’re just another professor, someone they can shred, or praise, on Rate My Professors, even adding a chile pepper, (yes, really), to show  how “hot” they think we are.

images-3

And, here in the U.S. where a year of tuition alone can cost $40,000 or more, we’re also fighting a consumerist mindset; I’m acutely aware that every hour I spend with my students represents a parental investment of  X-hundred dollars.

Am I worth it? Am I providing sufficient value? (Am I fun/likeable/relatable/helpful?)

And what are the objective metrics for those?

Unlike most aggrieved adjuncts, I don’t have a Phd nor multiple advanced degrees. I haven’t invested thousands of dollars and hours in acquiring academic credentials, in the hope or — worse — expectation that all this time and energy will produce a steady, well-paid income.

So, as much as working solely as an adjunct makes for a nasty, low-paid and tiring existence, as this Salon piece makes clear, it’s working for me.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

I was also fairly appalled to read this piece about how colleges are racing to blow millions on sexy, cool facilities like a “lazy river.”

I blog frequently about income inequality and the difficulty many Americans, even those well-educated, now have of finding well-paid work. It’s an odd and disturbing issue if professors who have invested their lives preparing to work in academia are, as the Salon piece says, on food stamps to survive.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

But my industry of 30 years — journalism, specifically print journalism — has also fallen to pieces and I now expect very little any more from the formal “job market.”

After losing my staff job at the New York Daily News in 2006, I had few choices:

1) return for re-training into a wholly new career (costly, no guarantee of work upon graduation); 2) keep trying to find a full-time job, with many fewer available; 3) learn a wholly new-to-me skill set (coding, HTML, etc) and compete with 25-year-olds; 4) remain freelance, but supplement/broaden my income with as many other revenue streams beyond print journalism as possible.

No. 4 is the course I took.

Have you had to re-tool or re-invent your career?

How’s it working out?

Are you an adjunct? Do you enjoy it?

Students….how do you feel about this?

 

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, life, work on September 21, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings

Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker

The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!

Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

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