How does one become creative?

In 1845, a young girl made this sampler…early creativity

By Caitlin Kelly

Back when I started this blog — 2009 (!) — one of my first and best-read posts was about the endless American fetish for “productivity” when creativity is really what drives most innovation, and certainly the arts.

As every blogger knows, blogging demands creativity! Ideas, some skill and the eternal optimism there might actually be an audience out there for us.

As readers here know, I only moved to the United States at the age of 30, so its cradle-to-grave obsession with work and being seen as obsessed with work — above all other pursuits (family, friends, health, a spiritual life, etc,) struck me, then as now, as weird. Yes, I know about the Puritan work ethic. But we’re not all wearing shoes with buckles or moving around by horseback and making our own soaps and clothing either…

In a country whose minimum wage pushes millions into poverty, millions will never find the time and energy and encouragement to savor creative pursuits, even for their own pleasure — cooking, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, woodworking, making music or visual art. American capitalism makes sure only the well-off have the leisure to do it without sacrifice — I still get a payment every year from Canada’s Public Lending Rights program, a sort of royalty system that pays authors for the library use of our books. It’s not a large amount, but is deeply meaningful to me, both because it democratizes access to our work and sends a powerful message to creators — you matter!

I don’t have children, but I do see the tremendous pressure American children face — to pass endless state tests, to do terrifying “active shooter drills”, to get into fancy and costly colleges.

None of which seem likely to foster creativity.

So I’m always in awe of creative people, some of whom manage to keep producing their work in the face of some serious odds.

Here’s a 9:07 video of actor Ethan Hawke talking about creativity; it’s gotten 5.2 million views.

“We’re educating kids out of creativity” says Sir Ken Robinson on this 2006 TED talk; it’s 19:12 minutes long and has received 74 million views, with lots of laughter and insight. “We need to radically rethink our idea of intelligence,” he says. Worth it!

Here’s one unlikely and interesting example of creativity — a book out May 16, 2023 from a San Antonio nephrologist whose Twitter threads on medicine were moving and powerful. Social media networks like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have fostered and spread all sorts of creativity, from high schoolers to seasoned professionals.

We recently visited friends who worked with my husband at The New York Times for decades, one a photographer renowned for his portraits and his wife, a photo editor. Her father was an architect and her mother a textile designer; his father and grandfather were bakers.

I grew up in a home filled with all sorts of art — Inuit prints and sculpture, 19th c Japanese prints, Mexican masks, a Picasso lithograph — and all three of my parents (father, mother, stepmother) worked in creative fields: journalism, TV and film-making. So it feels natural and felt inevitable I’d work in some creative capacity, as I’ve done since my teens when I sold three photos as magazine covers in Toronto while still in high school.

But creativity requires many things some people never have:

  • silence
  • solitude
  • uninterrupted time to think deeply
  • a physical space in which to paint, draw, print photos in a darkroom, weave, sew
  • access to needed tools and materials
  • the disposable income to buy needed tools and materials
  • a larger culture that admires and celebrates creativity, whether family, school, neighborhood, country
  • skill sufficient to make something you might want to keep or sell
  • time, energy and spare income to learn and perfect those skills
  • good health and mental focus
  • encouragement!

My favorite book on the subject is the 2003 book The Creative Habit by American choreographer Twyla Tharp.

She is ferocious! No awaiting the muse!

When, how and where does your creativity emerge?

Have you been encouraged along the way?

By whom?

Some very good news

By Caitlin Kelly

Last spring, Jose and I were chatting about doing a possible book, a sort of guide for fellow freelancers, as millions of people are now eager to try this way of living and working.

Over July and August we worked really hard and, writing it together, produced a full book proposal which we shared with a pal in Toronto who worked for years in book publishing and now teaches it. She liked it a lot but made some very specific suggestions to improve it.

We did that and started submitting it to agents, with a few rejections.

Then — yay! — we found an agent quickly, also in Toronto, my hometown I left decades ago. So we are now officially represented and very excited. She won’t be submitting it to editors until early November after we take a badly needed break, (Jose’s first for 2022), to Quebec and upstate NY.

Then, all digits will be crossed!

It’s a wild notion to be co-authors after 22 years together, and Jose is a photographer and photo editor and photo archivist — not a writer! But he writes very well and has been a good soldier with all my demands for revisions.

I haven’t sold a new book since September 2009, when I sold Malled, so am eager to rejoin the fray. The industry has changed a lot since then, and getting tougher, of course. There’s been a lot of consolidation so fewer places to submit to. Then the nasty fact of payments in 25% increments…the first payment (- 15% to the agent, standard every time) upon signing the deal; the second upon acceptance of the manuscript; the third upon publication — up to a year later then the final one (!) a year after that. Unless you get a huge advance, which few do, it’s not a way to make a lot of money!

But we know for sure there’s a global market for this subject and we’ve read some of the “comps” — comparable books, a must for every non-fiction book proposal. I won’t get specific yet, but ours has at least six very distinctive features that competing books just don’t offer.

Wish us luck!

My 2 weeks with Queen Elizabeth

By Caitlin Kelly

I admit — we were in the middle of a restaurant lunch yesterday when we learned that Queen Elizabeth had died.

I burst into tears.

I know for many people the monarchy is something hated and archaic. I get it.

For a Canadian who grew up, initially, with photos of Her Majesty on our classroom walls, then later on our stamps and currency, the Queen was a daily part of our lives, even if only her image.

As a young reporter for the national daily Globe and Mail, she became a part of my daily life in person when I was chosen to cover a Royal Tour of the Queen and Prince Philip.

It was the oddest sort of high profile assignment as it meant my stories would run on the front page most days — yet there would be little to say beyond what she wore, what she might say and who she met. It was both thrilling to be chosen and terrifying, especially as this was long before cellphones or the Internet or light, quick laptops. I would have to file for up to five daily editions, racing to meet each deadline with no easy access to a telephone or even a place from which to send my story or even to sit down and write it.

This made for some seriously weird moments — like the big old house in small-town New Brunswick where I begged to use their kitchen table to write, and, when an older gentlemen entered his own kitchen, muttered “Globe and Mail, on deadline!” Then I had to kick the lady of the house off her own telephone to commandeer the line, unscrew the handset, attach alligator clips, and transmit my story in time. The gentleman was a judge who would be attending a formal dinner with her that evening.

Or the hotel lobby gift shop whose pay phone I needed to use.

Or the small-town rural home whose front door I banged on in desperation…scaring the hell out of its poor owners as I begged yet more strangers for their help and to use their phone.

Each day was long and tiring, often with multiple events, and I think we were working 12-15 hour days, whipped.

We must have eaten, but I don’t remember when or how or what.

We traveled in a huge press pack, with Time and Newsweek and BBC and CBC all jammed into press planes or buses. Sometimes we flew in a Lear jet (a first!) and observed the “purple corridor” — the elapsed time between when Her Majesty’s plane took off and ours was allowed to.

We were all technically competing with one another for…no real news!

It was very odd to watch her turn her charm on and off like a spigot on walkabouts — we’re so used to politicians and celebrities who crave our attention, admiration, votes and money that to observe someone with multiple castles, the wealthiest woman (at least then) in the world up close — becoming cool/distant when she felt like it, was quite disorienting.

A dapper Glaswegian security man in a tweed jacket followed behind the Royal entourage, holding out his hands to keep us at bay like wild animals.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he replied, with a flirtatious twinkle in his eye. (I later bought one and gave it to him as a joke at our final party.)

I broke a few controversial stories and ended up being the brunt of some serious bullshit from competitors who had not matched my reporting. At a crowded mess hall somewhere in Manitoba, the legendary BBC TV reporter, Kate Adie, saw my distress and whispered in my ear: “The higher your profile, the better target you make.” She later mentioned me and that event in one of her memoirs.

A few specific memories:

— The stunning jewels of a tiara she wore to a dinner

— a brooch with an emerald the size of a baby’s fist

— a small suitcase in the back of a car, with a large red cardboard tag: The Queen

— being given a small piece of paper each morning with the official language we were to use to describe her clothing; eau-de-nil, not “light green.”

At the end of it all, we were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia for drinks. That was amazing enough, and then we were each presented to Her Majesty.

It was brief, but memorable.

Work should be fun! (Really?)

By Caitlin Kelly

Long loud harrumph.

Thumps cane for emphasis.

No!

Ok, yes, of course, often, maybe, if you’re really lucky, much of the time.

But always, every damn day of a 40+ year career?

Unlikely and foolish to desire.

The tedious cliche is “that’s why they call it work.”

The opposite fantasy is “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Ask anyone who’s been in the working world for a decade, let alone 20, 30 or 40 years.

This is also, I know, somewhat stiff-upper-lip generational — and I think an insistence work be “fun” is really proxy for a lot of other frustrations: carrying massive student debt for decades, low wages, terrible/non-existent promotions and raises, toxic managers, coworkers and/or customers (hello, foodservice and retail!)

As I’ve written here many times, I generally enjoy my work as a writer of journalism and content marketing, coaching and teaching. But there have been many times I was utterly miserable, even for a full year — like my last staff job as a reporter at the New York Daily News — where I was consistently ignored or bullied. It was torture.

It was a steady, decent paycheck at a then-respected newspaper, then the nation’s sixth-largest.

But happy? No, I was not happy. Fun? No, it was not, ever, fun.

When I worked for a few months in Toronto at Canadian Press, the national wire service, I had to write up every weekend’s accidental deaths across the province, slugged (named) Fatalities — aka Fats. NOPE. Not fun.

As a trade magazine editor in New York, I had a terribly low freelance budget and a highly demanding boss. Not a fun combination.

I do not subscribe to the belief that all work is, or should be, drudgery. But accepting that even the coolest-looking work has downsides and frustrations is more realistic. Even the best-known and wealthiest musicians and film stars have had work that failed to find an audience, auditions that were a disaster, spent years in the trenches working away before hitting the big time. Fun? Probably not.

I think we’re fortunate if we can find work that:

pays decently

offers kind, fun, funny, smart co-workers (even one of these!)

decent management

respect for the work we do

offers room for growth, internally or a boost to our next job elsewhere

helps other people live better/safer lives

I admit that, at its best, journalism has been amazing fun for me, many many times.

But it’s not a well-paid career.

It’s not a secure career and getting fired or laid off is pretty normal, even if expensive and annoying.

Forget a pension.

It’s often insanely competitive, even within your organization. So there’s plenty of stress and anxiety as well.

What’s the most fun job you’ve ever had?

No more yelling!

If you ever watch the HBO series Succession, here’s one very toxic boss, Logan Roy

By Caitlin Kelly

My favorite place in the suburban New York county where I’ve lived for decades is an indie art film house; some weeks I’m up there multiple times to see a film. I love movies!

Its programming director was recently fired for yelling at his staff, leaving one in tears.

There have always been bad-tempered toxic bosses, but in some places there’s now (happily!) a diminished appetite for them — as several high profile male NPR radio hosts have also learned in recent years, also fired for abusing their staff.

I welcome this, as someone who grew up in an emotionally abusive family and then worked in journalism, one of the most dysfunctional of industries; with a constant oversupply of eager job-seekers, nasty bosses can thrive and rise, thrive and rise, usually without any form of accountability. If they keep losing talented staff, well, hey, whose fault is that?

Having also survived years at boarding school, also being yelled at by old women who were our housemothers, I have little appetite for people unable to hold their damn tongues and be civil. I don’t care how frustrated you are.

I’ve survived quite a few terrifying bosses, one a woman at a trade magazine publisher in Manhattan, who thought nothing of shouting abuse across the room at all of us and, when I dared confront her, stood very very close to me and leaned in further….her pupils oddly dilated. I quit within a month, and with no job waiting and newly divorced.

At the New York Daily News, I dared to ask the photo editor a question in an open newsroom so large it ran from 34th to 33rd street. His idea to humiliate and intimidate me, he yelled at me that I was asking a really difficult question; how to fill out a photo request. What a dick. This was a wholly normal question for a new employee offered zero training. I was then 50 — and quietly told him that being abusive wasn’t going to alter my request. He then ran to my boss to complain about me. Such a FUN workplace!

And, of course, there was another trade magazine boss, a weird little troll who shouted at me for disappointing him when I was editing a 48 page trade magazine with no staff at all, able to offer only extremely low freelance rates that guaranteed careless work from the only writers we could afford.

He came into my very small office and, as I pleaded with him that I was doing my best, snarled: “Define best!”

I was, no surprise, fired a few days later.

I ran into him decades later while riding our shared commuter rail line. As he went to sit beside me, he asked: “Do you remember me?”

“Yes,” was all I said.

Journalism attracts people who are smart and tough and highly impatient, expected to produce flawless results very, very quickly…not a great combo. Then the most demanding rise into management where, sure, they have high standards — but also can get away with shouting and raging with impunity.

I’ve even encountered this toxic arrogance as a freelancer, like a young woman then an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review (ooooh, the delicious irony) who I finally had to hang up the phone on since she was unable to let me finish a sentence.

And, funny thing, she too has since risen in the industry.

I shook for an hour after that phone call — because if you’ve been the subject of a lot of yelling, especially as a child, it really evokes a sort of PTSD.

So every time another abusive manager loses their job, income and authority, I’m thrilled!

Have you been the victim of such bad behavior?

How did you handle it?

My writing life, recently

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a long time since I’ve offered an update here on my writing life.

Most recently, I coached two writers in two days, very different personalities working on very different projects. I really enjoy coaching, but sometimes — rarely — I have to conclude I’m not the right person to coach a particular writer, whether our differing personalities, goals or the type of work they want to pursue. As an old-school hard news reporter, having worked for three major daily newspapers, I believe in original reporting, thoughtful interviews and smart, incisive work. Lighter stuff just isn’t really my jam.

When people hire me to coach them — at $250/hour — I’m very aware they’re entrusting me with their hopes for bigger and better sales or new markets. If I really feel I’m not a fit, as I recently did with one writer, I’ll say so and not take on the work. I’ve now helped more than 50 people worldwide; most find me organically through my social media profiles. It’s hardly a full-time income, but a very welcome piece of my annual revenue.

This past week I also began a four-part series with another writer, a first for me. I’m really excited by this new opportunity.

In my own writing, I’ve been doing profiles of grant recipients for a non-profit, of highly accomplished academic researchers working on complex and thorny issues. It’s challenging! I don’t get a byline (i.e. my name on it as the author), but I’m happy to have the work, as it’s well-paid and interesting.

I also recently applied for another job, writing about a local non-profit organization, and we spent a lively hour on Zoom getting to know one another. These initial meetings are uncompensated, as we both need to discover if there’s a good fit between our styles, deadlines and budget. Budget is often a sticking point, as inflation is making me ask for higher rates now. The meeting was terrific and we’re going to re-group in about a month.

I had another hour-long meeting, also by Zoom, also with two principals, about my ongoing work as a design blogger for ZZDriggs, which recently hired two specific experts — aka my new bosses! We had a great conversation and discussed a few ideas; re-grouping in a few weeks as well.

The truth of these meetings with strangers — they’re tiring, really an hour of selling myself to them, truthfully, as someone smart and fun and collegial and skilled and…whew! It’s also a two-way street as, even though I need to earn income, I’m now more cautious about who I work with, having had a few disappointing experiences where I had to walk away and lose the money I had budgeted for.

Jose and I have been working on an idea for a book about how to freelance successfully, as something we’ve done. I hope we can find an agent and publisher.

I’ll also be writing for a trade publication, also about design; I studied at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s while still married to my first husband; a physician, he made a good income, which would have allowed me to start a new career at the bottom. But he bailed after two years of marriage, so I never went into the industry. I loved my training and it’s helping me now, years later, with expertise and authority — two things I can offer as someone deep into my career.

And someone referred me for a science-writing opportunity; I need to find out more to see if there’s a fit.

As a generalist, I really enjoy this odd mix of topics. It keeps me intellectually nimble, which is welcome in a time when so much journalism is tedious clickbait.

I’m doing less and less journalism, which is in some ways sad — but pay rates are abysmal, and contracts hideously restrictive — so there’s little pleasure to be found!

My last published story was February 10 in the Financial Times, which I’m super proud of. But a later pitch to another editor there, of course, was completely ignored. This is quite normal at larger outlets, where one editor has no say over another, so a referral onward internally can mean almost nothing. It’s extremely frustrating!

I found out, after long months of waiting, that I did not win a fellowship I applied for — nine others did. These things are horribly competitive, always. Having said that, I might try for another fellowship, one that offers more money and is less initially demanding (like insisting only people with guaranteed publication can compete.) That’s massively unfair to most freelancers.

I loved my month off, and came home completely refreshed and grateful to just not have to hustle, negotiate, produce or revise for those blessed weeks while Jose’s June freelance photo editing schedule was truly heinous — 15-hour days every day, plus the endless noise of renovations in our apartment hallway and in the apartment below.

There are days I think: “NO more work!” But I have an appetite for luxury, mostly travel, and the income still has to come from somewhere! I’m grateful so many people still want my skills and my point of view; I’m finding a new and much happier way to work when it’s not journalism, which remains a greedy and hierarchical model. My non-journalism clients really appreciate the skills I bring and even some of my ideas, a breath of fresh air when they’re internally stymied or new to the organization. Cooperation! Teamwork!

As I contemplate retirement I also have no hobbies! A friend suggested birding, which doesn’t feel like a fit.

For now, a slower schedule bringing in a decent-enough income is fine with me. It allows time off for travel and brings in the means to do it.

Cognitive overload!

By Caitlin Kelly

I bet you’re hitting it as well.

Right now, I’m juggling:

Dealing with administrative/tedious tasks to access services at two Canadian government websites

Same with a navigator for healthcare who needs a lot of detail from me (like how can I possibly know in advance which hospitals and doctors I want?!)

Worried about a younger half-brother recently diagnosed with cancer; it looks treatable but he has already had major surgery and face a lot of aggressive chemo

Worried about two very over-burdened friends, one with an elderly mother and one whose job is from hell

Trying to find an editor to make a commitment — sight unseen –– to a series of stories I want to produce to win one of two highly competitive fellowships. This obstacle is extremely unfair to any freelancer, forcing us to force editors into commitments months in advance, and both of the places I plan to apply insist upon it.

Polishing the fellowship application.

The war in Ukraine

More COVID spreading with the latest variant

Climate change, as this New York magazine story reminds us:

Yes, there is a war going on, not to mention an ongoing pandemic, an inflation and energy crisis, and plenty of other, more quotidian concerns besides. But many of the same figures calling, screamingly, for attention in 2018 are doing the same this time around. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has ushered the new report into the world with familiar fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. “Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone — now,” he said. “Many ecosystems are at the point of no return — now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction — now.” The report itself concluded with a similar flourish: “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” In his introductory remarks, Guterres underscored the point: “Delay means death.”

Life, mid-pandemic

By Caitlin Kelly

Nope, we are not “post” pandemic!

I now keep masks in my purses and the car and almost every pocket. I do not like wearing a mask, especially going 100 rpm in spin class, where it’s mandatory.

I wonder when (if!) we will ever be free of them.

But I also think we’re going to keep getting hit with variants for years and we will need to keep getting vaccinated and paying attention.

We are lucky and grateful to not have gotten this disease.

So, here’s how life is for me and Jose these days:

— I’ve booked flights and hotels for a month’s stay in California in June. I cannot sit here one more minute dreaming of all the travel I’ve missed for the past two years! I’ll be celebrating my birthday with friends, then doing a solo driving trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, meeting up in each place with friends who live there.

Work has been a variety of things: coaching other writers, doing three Zoom webinars with a younger friend in Tennessee (we each made decent money when 35-47 people showed up at $25/head), sold my first story to the Financial Times, and blogging for two design websites.

Entertaining! I have so so so missed having people over, so I had two colleagues up from New York for tea. It was a perfect afternoon, with little sandwiches and treats and two kinds of tea all served from my 19th c tea set. We’re seeing friends in the city next week at their new apartment as well.

Culture! I’ve seen two plays recently and two concerts. The weather is less punishing and, as mandates ease up, it just feels safer.

Inflation. So fun. This week’s groceries (including non- food items like cleaning products, paper products and a bunch of roses) $290. For two people. Gas has jumped to $4.49 gallon where we live, up to $6 a gallon elsewhere. Nothing to be done but deal with it.

Fear. Fear of, oh you know, nuclear annihilation. Where are our passports? Is there anywhere safe while Putin remains in power?

Grief. Ukraine.

Social life starts again. Sort of.

Professional events. We’re attending an industry dinner soon (dressing up!) and I’m speaking May 1 at an annual journalism conference.

Of course, we know dozens of people who have gotten COVID, thankfully none who died.

I lost my beloved breast surgeon to long COVID as she got it before the vaccines were even available.

I fear, seriously, for the millions who are now suffering from long COVID and whose lives are radically changed and worsened, from brain fog and crippling fatigue to heart issues and more. No government seems to have realized its impact, and I see people being denied disability benefits they need to survive when they can’t prove the problem.

Between war and climate change and inflation and COVID — how are you doing?

Aaaah, far niente! The joy of being lazy

My favorite clock — in a Zagreb cafe

By Caitlin Kelly

I always thought I was ambitious and driven — and I am! — but hoo, boy, living in the United States, and especially in New York, can make people working 24/7 feel lazy, slow and — the worst insult here — “unproductive.”

If there is a word I loathe, it’s “productive”, and wrote one of my most popular and controversial early blog posts about it.

It assumes our only value in the world is financial — making lots and lots of money and proving to everyone how hard-working you are, when many of us, so many, would have preferred more available parents or friends or relatives to just hang out with for a while. I mean, working way beyond financial need or your work’s requirements to keep proving to someone (who?) you are a valuable person.

We are.

No one, I assure you, no one, dies whispering regretfully they wish they’d been more productive.

They mourn lost or broken relationships, the travel they never enjoyed, the loss of health and strength.

I love to look at beauty

I was too driven for my native Canada but am far too European for the U.S. — because I nap almost every day, vacation as often and for as long (pre-COVID) as affordable, and keep urging others to lay down tools and rest.

So I loved this piece in The New York Times on the unfashionable joys of being lazy:

America in 2022 is an exhausting place to live. Pretty much everyone I know is tired. We’re tired of answering work emails after dinner. We’re tired of caring for senior family members in a crumbling elder care system, of worrying about a mass shooting at our children’s schools. We’re tired by unprocessed grief and untended-to illness and depression. We’re tired of wildfires becoming a fact of life in the West, of floods and hurricanes hitting the South and East. We’re really tired of this unending pandemic. Most of all, we are exhausted by trying to keep going as if everything is fine.

Increasing numbers of people are refusing to push through this mounting weariness: There are currently 10 million job openings in the United States, up from 6.4 million before the pandemic.

This trend is being led by young people; millions are planning to leave their jobs in the coming year. Some middle-aged people decry the laziness of today’s youth, but as a chronically sick Gen X parent, and as a rabbi who has spent much of my career tending to dying people as their lives naturally slow, I am cheering young people on in this Great Resignation.

I have seen the limits of the grind. I want my child to learn how to be lazy.

I also like this, from Seth Godin’s blog:

In our fast-moving world, it’s easy to get hooked on personal velocity. What’s in your inbox? Did someone follow you in the last ten seconds? Where’s the beep and the beep and the beep from your last post?

Perhaps we talk faster, interrupt, talk over, invent, dissect, criticize and then move on to the next thing. Boom, boom, boom.

Don’t want to fall off the bike.

But life isn’t a bike. It works fine if we take a moment and leave space for the person next to us to speak.

Are you going fast without getting anywhere?

Come join our pitch slam! Dec. 15, 6-7 ET

By Caitlin Kelly

On December 15, between 6-7pm ET, my friend Abby Lee Hood and I are offering a Zoom pitch slam — $25.

If you have been pitching (some of?) your ideas fruitlessly, this is a great and affordable opportunity to get smart, kind, helpful feedback from two busy full-time freelancers; I’ve sold more than 100 stories to the very demanding editors of The New York Times and Abby writes for a wide variety of outlets, some in their native Tennessee (i.e. local and regional news) but also for the Times, Teen Vogue, Washington Post and more.

Pitching isn’t easy!

So this webinar, which will be recorded, offers everyone a chance to either pitch their idea and get our candid-but-kind feedback or just watch, listen and learn.

Here’s the sign-up!

Hope you will join us!