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Alex Wroblewski, NYT photo intern — and talent!

In art, beauty, culture, journalism, news, photography, the military, work on July 14, 2016 at 1:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Alex and I have been friends for a few years. We met through the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program offered annually to ambitious and talented young journalists. My husband taught him and we stayed in touch, with Alex coming to stay with us in New York.

This summer he’s one of three photo interns at the Times, a coveted opportunity to show his skills once more. He also won the White House News Photographers Association student award for 2016.

I so admire his work, and work ethic, that I asked him to share his ideas and some of his work with Broadside:

Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

Sunday, June 22, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Chicago

Tell me a bit of your history…where were you born? Raised? Did you move around a lot as a child or teen?

 I was born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin called West Bend and had a pretty quiet childhood growing up… I started skateboarding in my early teens and my friends and I would shoot photos and videos of each other jumping down stairs and the like, which is how I got into photography originally.

What sort of work do/did your parents do? i.e. where does your creative spirit come from?

My father worked in a factory for 25 plus years and my mother had worked odd jobs before a decade plus career working at Walmart and in other pharmacies as a technician. My dad is still working 50-60 hours a week today but has an office position which I think he enjoys more, and my mom was still working in a pharmacy at a hospital before she passed away from cancer.

She went to work the same day she would do chemotherapy, driving herself to both. She was incredibly hard working, so is my dad, and I think that’s where my work ethic comes from.

My creative spirit early on came from skateboarding and the films and photographs I’d see from the street/skateboarding world. Music eventually became a big influence, I remember getting into The Beatles/Bob Dylan/Jack Kerouac and just the whole scene in the sixties, the photographs had such a unique look, everything from that era.

 

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; Ferguson, Missouri

I remember having this John Coltrane poster on my wall forever, just collecting photos like that. And eventually I got interested in other types of photography, with photojournalism being a big one, and eventually I decided to go to school for it.

Where did you attend college and why?

I went on and off part time at a community college, but was never sure what I wanted to go for but eventually settled on photography with some encouragement from my Mom, who always wanted me to go to school but never pressured me to do so. I had moved to Los Angeles after high school with some friends to go skateboarding.

I worked in a factory for the summer to save for LA and then ended up working at Starbucks in  L.A. to pay the bills, and would shoot video and photos of my friends skateboarding in my free time.

In 2009 I started going full time to Brooks Institute in Ventura, California for visual journalism, where I bought my first serious camera, a Canon 50D. However I would only stay at school for a couple of months, it just became too expensive and there were few scholarships, so it wasn’t long before I moved back to Wisconsin.

I eventually went back to college in 2013 after freelancing at the local paper, the director of photography and a mentor of mine at The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel told me that it would be important to have a bachelor’s degree to get a full time job at a news organization, something I have and still inspire to do. If all goes well I will have my degree by the end of spring 2016.

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Mourners in Baghdad, April 11, 2015

 

Did you enjoy it – how has it helped (or hindered) you?

College has opened up the doors to many opportunities, and I’ve been blessed to meet some amazing people, that I would not have had working odd jobs forty hours a week, however it has also been without some serious debt, but again, I could easily have stayed at whatever dead end job with no opportunities… so I am thankful that I had a Mom and Dad that were willing to cosign my student loans so I could go back to school and pursue a career in photojournalism.

And not every school is expensive, I could have gotten a BA for less but the faculty and location was really important in my decision, Chicago has a great journalism scene here, and Columbia had both a strong reporting/writing program, and photo. I went for reporting/writing to learn something different since I had been freelancing as a photographer, and wanted to learn a different skill to fall back on. And at that point of deciding I was really interested in the reporting side as well.

 When and where did you first get interested in the work you do now?

I was interested in photography first and then sort of fell into journalism, I was reading a lot about the Iraq war and then got my hands on Eugene Richards, James Nachtwey, and Annie Liebovitz books at Brooks Institute…

So that was really inspiring from the photography side, but with journalism it was NPR that really made me fall in love with the news. Audio is a really different way to “experience” a story, and something about it just clicked where I developed an appetite for consuming not just NPR but reading whatever newspaper I could get my hands on as well.

 

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Tikrit, Iraq, April 2015

Who, if anyone, encouraged or mentored you the most?

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors over the past few years who I still keep in touch with, including Jackie Spinner, a professor at Columbia College Chicago who is part of the reason I chose that school… Jose Lopez, who I met at The New York Times Student Journalism Institute who has always been beyond encouraging, and many friends and colleagues whose advice and support have been invaluable.

What lessons did they teach you that have proven most useful?

I think what I learned most from them is how to work in the industry itself, it’s a small world and very competitive. Getting to learn the ropes the past couple of years, I could always reach out to them with whatever question I had. But theirs and others encouragement, I found equally important. Getting positive feedback on your work is always motivating to do more and think of new ideas and push yourself.

You’ve traveled the world…what gives you the confidence to do so?

I have always been interested in traveling, meeting new people, and learning about new cultures, I suppose from a lot of the skateboarding videos and magazines I’d see/read when I was younger. With street skateboarding the pros would travel the world, and many professional skaters were from different countries as well so being exposed to that made me want to travel.

My parents didn’t travel much, but were always encouraging and supportive and I’ve always worked odd jobs to save money to get myself places and when it came to journalism, I have been able to work on spec. [i.e. without a previous assignment] for the most part.

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Near Tikrit, Iraq, 2015

Other people look at a creative life, and a somewhat transient one, as scary and unpredictable. How does it feel for you?

I really love having a creative outlet, but like many careers that are based on creativity it can feel really stressful and unpredictable. I find that being so passionate about photojournalism makes it much easier to spend so much time and effort without a monetary return, to eat sleep and breathe it, and just being obsessive about it is okay with me because its something I really love.

I know I will not become wealthy as a photojournalist, but as long as I’m doing something I enjoy and can live off of, is what’s important.

Where do you find creative inspiration? Do you have any role models or people you especially admire (in or out of your field?) Why them?

I find a lot of inspiration in friends, colleagues, mentors and other photographers I look up to. Seeing their work and whatever new projects they’re working on inspires me to go out and shoot. I feel that you can learn a lot not just taking pictures but looking at other peoples work, it gives you a different outlook or different way of thinking that can sometimes help you get outside of “your box.”

I also find inspiration in the art, music, and film world, anything that gets me thinking in a new way.

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

July 25, 2014. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times; a woman hit by tear gas has her eyes rinsed; Ferguson, Missouri

What advice would you offer to people who wish they had your life? (i.e. creativity, freedom, travel, etc.)

Don’t give up. Hard work pays off. For me it’s been a long road but has been truly rewarding knowing I’ve been persistent. And spend time or surround yourself with people who are positive and will challenge you. And be sure to spend time with family.

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, news, television, work, world on June 7, 2016 at 2:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.

 

 

 

We’re all WIPs…(works in progress)

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, work on May 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This is one of my favorite paintings…it’s huge, and hangs in a hallway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It’s Joan of Arc realizing her destiny.

We live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.

We’re human.

And a culture based on an industrial production model, aka laissez-faire capitalism, doesn’t really allow for much humanity, the times we’re slowed by grief or panic or confusion.

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Give your tired old dogs a rest!

We can’t all operate at 100 percent all the time, even if some people expect it.

We get sick, with an acute illness, or a chronic illness or, worst, a terminal illness.

We nurse loved ones with these afflictions.

I see so many people flagellating themselves for not producing more (why not producing better?) or not meeting others’ (unreasonable) expectations or failing to keep up with others who may have the advantage of tremendous tailwinds we’ll never see or know exist.

We could all use a little break, no?

A common phrase among fiction writers is their WIP, their work in progress, i.e. a book or poem or essay they’re plugging away on, whether with a contract and a publisher or just a lot of hope and faith.

 

We’re all a work in progress, really.

 

Getting older (I have a birthday soon!) is a great way to slow down long enough to reflect on the progress we’ve already made, not just scrambling every single day to do it all faster and better.

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It’s so easy to feel inadequate when deluged daily by a Niagara of shiny, happy, successful images on social media.

As if those were the (full) true story.

 

But everyone has a wound and a dark place and a weak spot, likely several, and they often remain well hidden, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes for decades.

 

Have you seen this moving, powerful TED talk?

It’s 12:58 in length, presented by a writer named Lidia Yuknavitch — who I confess I’d never heard of before.

Her talk reminds us that:

“Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful,” she says. “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.”

It is so easy, at every level and stage of life, to feel like less than, a failure, a loser, and no one is ever supposed to admit it!

Only losers admit to feeling fear, envy, insecurity.

Not true.

We’re human.

And we all end up in the same place eventually.

 

The true meaning of collegiality

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

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The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

Mentoring 3.0

In behavior, business, education, life, work on May 10, 2016 at 12:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Which path should I choose?!

 

The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.

You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.

But here’s the thing.

I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.

The economy has changed.

Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.

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Books can offer lots of great advice, too!

Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.

So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.

We all need to adapt.

I’ve mentored many people throughout the years.

Some have become and remained dear friends, like this talented young woman in London. I’m super thrilled to see what a great career and life she has created for herself.

A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!

Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.

I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.

Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.

Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.

Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.

They might not even have a “job” anymore!

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It all feels so mysterious, though. Help!!!

Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!) — pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.

Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.

Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.

We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.

Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.

No one owes you this!

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker — and generous mentor to many in our field

And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.

In the new economy, we all need one another.

Less work, more life

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, journalism, life, work on May 7, 2016 at 12:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.

Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…

 

My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.

It made no sense.

What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?

And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.

 

As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.

Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.

If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.

That’s normal life for 99% of us.

But should it be?

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We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?

 

The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.

And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.

For too many hard-working people, the “virtuous cycle” of work has long since been replaced with a vicious one, as so many us earn less than we used to, costs rise, good jobs are outsourced and turned into “gigs” with no benefits or access to unemployment insurance.

Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.

Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.

They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.

This is brutal.

This is heartbreaking.

We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.

 

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Beauty helps!

I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.

We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.

If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.

I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.

But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.

 

Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.

 

I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.

I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.

I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.

My stubbornness created its own challenges!

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How much is enough?

I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.

I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)

My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.

It means making, and spending, less money.

We’re outliers, in some key ways:

We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.

We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.

We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.

I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been  bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.

That left some bruises.

I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.

But it’s only one part of my life.

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I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.

I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.

I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.

I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.

Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.

Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.

I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.

We met and married later in life,  and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.

Now our priority is one another, our friends.

Our life.

How about you?

 

How badly do you want to be a writer?

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on April 22, 2016 at 1:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.

 

For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.

Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.

Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.

Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.

There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.

There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.

There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.

Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:

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It takes talent

 

Yes, it does.

Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.

Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.

 

It takes training

 

You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.

They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.

They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.

The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your  craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.

 

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STUDY THE GREATS!

It takes practice

 

I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.

They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.

We all crave success and admiration.

It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.

It takes social skills aka charm

Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.

Charm is an under-rated skill.

Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.

Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.

Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.

 

It takes skills

 

If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.

You are not An Artist here.

You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.

You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.

We’re hired help.

Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.

Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.

For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.

You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.

If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.

 

I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.

 

 

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This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…

It takes studying the greats

“You can’t write without reading.”

If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.

Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.

 

It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source

 

It doesn’t matter what the work is.

T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.

Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.

J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.

If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.

Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.

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Isn’t this cover gorgeous? The author is a 747 pilot for British Airways. Fantastic book!

It takes patience

No one writes a perfect first draft.

No one.

 

It means being edited

If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.

Just don’t even bother.

Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.

A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.

A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.

How badly do you want to improve?

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

It means being read

Obvious, right?

That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.

You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.

A thick skin is key.

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My second book, published in 2011. Some of the Amazon reviews were truly vicious. I stopped reading them years ago…

It means being — publicly –critiqued

Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:

Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.

BOOM!

The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.

(Several other reviews were much kinder.)

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It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.

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It means being lucky — or not

 

This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.

It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.

Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.

It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.

(See a pattern here?)

It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.

Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.

The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.

Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.

How badly do you really want it?

 

Why being “productive” is a waste of time

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, life, Money, U.S., work on April 2, 2016 at 11:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Attending the ballet and staring at the ceiling — OMG, wasting time!

If there is an obsession I really hate, it’s “being (more) productive”, i.e. making sure that every minute of our every day is spent doing something, preferably as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Do more!

No, do even more. Better!

I live near New York City, a place where if you’re not working reallyhardallthetime — gobbling lunch at your desk with no break in your day — you’re seen as some witless, gormless slacker.

It’s hardly a point of view confined to New York, but it does feel very American, with a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money and never wasting time because…you could be making more money!

All of which strikes me as sad and weird.

This mania for measurement began, as some of you know, with Taylorism and Fordism, ways of manufacturing, (to profit corporate owners and their shareholders), more quickly and efficiently, named for the men who created these systems.

Here’s a great video from the website Aeon, on the topic.

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Time or money? Which do you value more? Must we always choose?

As the video wisely points out, you simply can’t quantify intellectual output the way you can time with a stopwatch how long it takes to install a windshield or weld a joint.

The other essential problem with focusing all our energy on being more productive is that we are not machines. We are not industrial creatures, made of metal and oil.

We need to rest, to think, to reflect, to stare at the sky.

Constantly pumping out goods or services guarantees burnout and resentment.

It’s like dancing with fog, really, if you try to make creative work more efficient.

How long does it take to produce an idea?

A good idea?

An idea that isn’t shot down?

An idea that actually earns a profit?

And must that profit be purely monetary to have value?

What if your idea, instead, saves a life or soothes a colicky baby or gladdens your neighbor’s heart?

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Here are a few things you can’t do more productively:

 

Kiss

 

Die

 

Be born

 

Pray

 

Create a work of art

 

Meditate

 

Comfort someone

 

Be generous

 

Breathe

 

The writer’s week

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on February 23, 2016 at 5:06 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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An ongoing, occasional series, a glimpse into the life of a full-time freelance writer and career journalist…

It’s been a week!

And it’s only Tuesday

I spoke yesterday to a class of freshman students at New York University, invited by a friend, Sarah Dohrmann, a highly accomplished writer who’s been published in one of the Holy Grails of American journalism, Harper’s; here’s her story about Moroccan prostitutes.

She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!

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Jose (my husband, a freelance photographer) bought this book — I look forward to reading it!

One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.

So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.

It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.

We’re still figuring it out.

 

When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.

 

How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?

How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?

Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?

 

That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.

I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.

Rejection is normal.

 

If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.

 

Figure out what didn’t work and move on.

Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.

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My husband’s retirement cake; I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a former colleague)

We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!

 

 

Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.

Peace of mind.

I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — blogger Jen Iacovelli in the bow of a dugout canoe. This is where I was two years ago. Hungry for my next adventure!

I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.

Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.

Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.

That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.

In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.

One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.

The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.

We’re a tribe.

Without it, we’re toast.

 

 

 

Four recent “failures” and what they taught me

In aging, behavior, business, life, women, work on February 10, 2016 at 12:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

It’s the new black, failure.

Every day I see a new book or article exhorting us all to fail — and enjoy it.

Fail forward!

Like it’s really fun and comforting and the sort of thing you just can’t wait to blog about or tweet about or post an Instagram image of you at the elevator holding your cardboard box with all your shit in it after doing the walk of shame from your desk when they’ve just canned you.

Sorry, right-sized you.

Whatever.

Here’s an interesting blog post about why trying (and failing) is good for us:

Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.

A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.

Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.

Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.

Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.

 

But I’m damn glad it’s 2016, because 2015 really kicked my ass in some new and excruciating ways.

Because four in a year, (and these are only a few of the bigger ones, the ones I’ll even admit to here), is a shit-ton of failure in my world.

Kelly’s don’t fail.

So that’s an issue right there.

I hate the tired phrase “comfort zone” — and yet I wholeheartedly agree with the premise we all need to flee ours, often, to try new things, stretch our wings, learn new skills and behaviors.

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Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC. Was their decades of prior success now a “failure” because they closed? Not to me!

Failure Number One

I was hired to teach two classes a day, one day a week, at a schmancy private college, the kind where the rich kids fly home to Asia on long weekends and everyone dyes their hair purple and septum rings are de rigueur.

I had previously taught at several New York City-area colleges, no novice. I read up on millennials and what to expect.

This was different.

Tuition there runs a cool $60,000 a year, to study high-earning fields like…writing.

I loved the first semester, grateful for lively students who were warm and hard-working. What’s not to like? Half of them arrived each week 20 minutes before class began just to hang out. I really enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, not just a pile ‘o papers to grade.

The second semester was…not that. Suffice to say it started badly and ended much worse. I don’t teach there anymore and I wouldn’t if it were the last income source on earth. An MIA dean made it even more difficult.

Lesson learned: Adjunct teachers, especially of writing and especially in New York City, are more disposable than Kleenex. Without solid institutional support — of any kind! — it’s impossible to navigate complex scenarios you’ve never faced before.

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There’s never enough beer when things are shitty

Failure Number Two

I take on a web-writing assignment for a large charity, excited to work on something I believe in for people whose work I respect. The fee is fine and the people seem pleasant.

But they’ve never worked with an outside writer before and it becomes increasingly clear that they have no idea how to manage my time effectively, both being vague and micromanage-y all at once.

It gets worse week by week until finally it’s one Friday at 5:30 p.m. and we politely and cordially enough call it a day.

I lose $4,000 worth of anticipated income by failing to complete that project, and feel like a fool for not realizing how complex it would be.

Lesson learned: Ask a lot more questions before committing to a project, especially one that’s going to be edited by so many people.

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This little monkey is so NOT my role model. Flee, monkey!

Failure Number Three

I congratulate someone I know, vaguely, on Facebook about a great new managerial role he recently assumed.

Within a month, to my great surprise, he’s hired me to manage two complex, multi-part projects. The potential income is excellent and the content challenging. It does look a little hairy, but I’m a quick learner.

So I thought.

His managerial style proves to be a pendulum between charm and bullying. Our communication is both excessive and insufficient to our needs.

And the writers I need to hire and contract for work are fearful — naturally, given the state of our industry now — that they won’t be paid or paid quickly.

I reassure them, but with no sure knowledge of this man’s business ethics, or that of his employer. Which makes me very anxious indeed; he’s only one client, while my wide network of trusted colleagues is what keeps me working year after year thanks to their referrals. I don’t want to inadvertently screw anyone over!

Within weeks, I’m debating how soon to walk away, but hating the idea of letting down a large team — our initial meeting, (hello, warning sign) included 25 people.

I’m fired.

I’m also hugely relieved — and out at least a month’s income because I’ve been 100 percent focused on this thing, not marketing elsewhere.

Lesson learned: If a job or assignment feels this wrong within days, let alone weeks, it probably is. If someone lashes out at me, I don’t care how much they’re paying. I’m done. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior at this point in my career.

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Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. My WaterAid gig in Nicaragua — for all its challenges — was a joy and a pleasure. That’s what I seek.

Failure Number Four

I’m asked to chair a 13-member volunteer committee for a registered charity, a board I’ve served on already for six years.

I’m passionate about the mission. I have a ton of ideas and am really excited to see what we can do to advance its goals and make its value much more visible.

I choose a co-chair to help, as I know some heavy lifting lies ahead.

We have no training in how to actually run a board or a meeting.

We do our best, but are soon, at every step, ignored by half the board or undermined and criticized by three women, all former presidents of it, who have very strong opinions. Nothing we say or do is met with enthusiasm, and some of it with serious opposition.

Not a great start.

I’m soon spending more unpaid time turning to others who run or serve on other boards for advice and help. Demoralized and worn out, I end up in tears.

My husband says — just leave.

We spend weeks crafting our letter of resignation, trying to be polite but honest about why we’re quitting our roles, and the board — to be met with “I’m overjoyed” by one of these women who then sends the entire board a vicious laundry list of our personal faults.

Lesson learned: Walking away is often the only choice. No one can “lead” a group of people who have no interest in supporting your ideas.

Admitting I’ve made lousy decisions hurts.

Admitting to my weaknesses hurts.

Admitting I can’t take on, and master, new projects quickly is less difficult — but I now know for sure that opposition, whether aggressive or passive-aggressive, means guaranteed failure.

Admitting I was unable to rally the support I needed is painful and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what went so wrong.

We all like to succeed.

We rarely, if ever, publicly discuss or admit to fucking up.

But we all do it.

 

I’m guilty of sometimes moving ahead too quickly, leaping before I look deeply enough, perhaps. As a full-time freelancer living in a costly part of the world, we need steady income in the four figures every single month. I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the perfect fit on every opportunity.

But I’m also forever eager to try new experiences, face new challenges and grow my skills and my network. If I stick to my knitting, that can’t happen.

 

Onward!

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