It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.
Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.
In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.
I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!
There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!
Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!
They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.
They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.
Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.
I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.
My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.
But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.
Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.
When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.
When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.
When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.
Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.
Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.
I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.
OK, you think, she’s lost her marbles — for good this time.
How can anyone enjoy housework?
Here are 10 reasons I enjoy cleaning our home:
Jose — my husband, a photo editor and photographer — and I are now both full-time freelance. That means spending a lot more time, together, in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not only our home, but on many days also our shared work space. If it’s not tidy, clean and organized, we’re toast. Where’s that check? Where’s my invoice? Have you seen my notes?! Not an option.
Housework also offers me a quick, physically-active break from the computer.
Because I lose no time to commuting, I don’t resent spending 20 minutes a day making sure our home is in good order.
People who spend hours just getting to and from work every day — and/or caring for/ferrying multiple children to multiple activities — have much less time available to do anything, let alone clean the bathtub.
2. We live in a small apartment.
There’s no extra wing — or bedroom or bathroom or unfilled closet (I wish!) in which to stash all the junk. If it’s out, we see it. So we spend a lot of time putting stuff away.
3. Jose does all the laundry.
Every bit of it, every single time. I loathe doing laundry, (machines in our apartment building basement), and am grateful he actually enjoys doing it. Plus he gets to hear all the building gossip.
And I (yes) really enjoy ironing.
4. I spent my childhood in institutional settings — alternating between boarding school and summer camp, ages 8 through 16.
That meant sharing space with two to four other girls, stuck with ugly, uncomfortable iron beds at school and plain wooden bunks at camp. School offered basic cotton coverlets and faded paper wallpaper.
Always someone else’s tastes and rules.
I’m so fortunate now to own our home, one in which we’ve invested care, sweat and two major renovations.
In world where so many people are homeless — the indigent, refugees living in tents for years — to have a home that is clean, safe, private and ours?
I treasure it.
5. In boarding school we were graded daily — with a sheet of paper taped to the bedroom entrance — on our neatness. I always got terrible marks which meant I had to stay in at weekends and/or (yes, really) memorize Bible verses as punishment. I can think of fewer more effective ways to make someone hate being tidy.
Today it’s wholly my choice, freely made.
6. We own lovely things, many of them old.
It’s my joy and pleasure to take good care of them for whoever gets them next time around. We have no kids, so who knows…A friend? An auction house?
Whether the 18th century oak dining table or valuable original signed photographs, it’s a privilege to own them. Why not take good care of them?
7. I don’t consider it housework but home care.
There’s a very real difference for me.
8. We have no pets or children and we’re both pretty tidy.
Without mud, dander, fur and jammy hand-prints appearing every day everywhere, caring for a small apartment just isn’t a big deal — two to three hours’ work does the whole place.
It’s not a huge house filled with stuff and/or being endlessly re-shuffled and messed by others, some them breathtakingly oblivious to how much time and work it takes to keep a home looking its best.
I’m amazed, (and appalled), by people whose children and husbands or male partners (typically) just don’t do their fair share of laundry and cleaning up.
It’s a huge burden on women who already have plenty on our plates as it is.
9. My parents’ homes were/are poorly cared for.
They had plenty of money and each owned some very nice things, so, in my view, had no excuse for neglecting these gifts. I hated seeing dust everywhere and finding a fridge either empty of any food or full of rotting vegetables.
10. Our home nurtures us deeply.
As highly visual people, we’ve chosen every element of it carefully — from wall colors to cust0m-made lined curtains, antique rugs and original photographs, silver and silver-plate cutlery, linen and cotton napkins.
We’ve created a home that demands some real attention: dusting, polishing, shining, washing — but that also rewards us handsomely with beauty, warmth, comfort and a place to recharge.
We also love to entertain, often holding long, lazy Sunday lunches for our friends or welcoming young journalists to crash on our sofa.
Keeping the place guest-ready means we’re happy to host without panicking.
Is housework something you dread and avoid — or does doing it give you some pleasure as well?
A little late to this party, but those of you on Twitter might have seen this popular hashtag, where people share their first seven jobs.
It’s been really interesting to see all the odd and unlikely things people do to earn money…tank driver, fishmonger, clown, pipeline surveyor, funeral musician.
It was also interesting to see how many of the jobs were fairly low-level/low-wage until people hit a well-paid professional career, and it seemed like a longer, slower trajectory for the Americans who tweeted, maybe because so many go on to graduate school, maybe because some just didn’t need — or couldn’t get — a better position sooner.
Here are the first seven ways I tried to make money, (and you’ll quickly see a pattern!):
Made and sold home-made bead necklaces on a street corner in a chi-chi shopping area of Toronto. I was 12.
Made and sold home-made envelopes (magazine pages, with an address label). I was 15.
Lifeguard at various Toronto swimming pools, public and private. Ages 15 to 18.
Waitress (very briefly!)
Busgirl (even worse)
Sold my photos on the street. Age 19
Sold my articles to national magazines and newspaper. Age 19.
I soon learned that:
I like to sell
I like to talking to strangers
I’m not scared of selling or of speaking to strangers
I like seeing how people respond to my creativity
I like it even more when they pay me for it!
Lifeguarding is really, really, really, boring — until or unless (which never happened) someone is in serious trouble
Waitressing and bussing tables demands huge physical stamina, patience and a shit-ton of emotional labor
I prefer being paid to challenge and question authority (journalism) than kow-towing to bosses and customers (service work)
The world of work can appear terrifying, impenetrable, overwhelming. No matter how hard you work or whatever degree(s) you earn or your stellar marks/GPA, you can still hit a wall, or many.
There are many people out there insisting you follow your passion, without regard to — you know, money.
Just because you like making cupcakes/walking your dog/playing the banjo doesn’t mean you can earn a decent living from it.
The challenge for everyone, from first job to last, is finding steady work we enjoy, (at least much of the time), and that uses our skills and emotional intelligence.
Working for income is such a potent blend of drive, determination, talent, sheer get-this-shit-done-now, emotional labor, (i.e. sucking up, being nice to people even when — especially when — you’re being badly paid and treated like crap, as in retail and foodservice), management draaaaaaamas, finding smart/kind (if you’re lucky) co-workers, bosses and clients…
A job can look perfect on paper and then you start and….ohhhhh, shit…It’s not.
Or, yay! It really is.
I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist working freelance, i.e. without any paid sick days or paid vacation, without a boss or co-workers or raises or promotions or bonuses or commission. Whatever I earn has to come through my efforts and skills, and, when it works, the generosity of my networks who refer me on to their contacts.
Some years have been terrific, others much less so.
I do enjoy working in/with/on a team, as one does in a newsroom or magazine. I enjoy, and I miss, the camaraderie and the mix of smarts and energy.
But I also treasure autonomy, being able to plan and manage my own time, (and time off — Americans with staff jobs are terrified to ask for or use their skimpy vacation days) –and to pick and choose work that makes sense to me, intellectually if not always financially.
I’ve had three well-paid staff jobs at major daily newspapers, in Toronto at the Globe and Mail, (Canada’s best), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.
I loved the first, enjoyed aspects of the second and barely survived the third; daily American newspapers, now struggling mightily and shedding staff like autumn leaves, are highly specific cultures, some welcoming, some less so.
I’ve also worked as a senior editor and editor in chief of a few magazines, work I enjoyed less, as it was totally desk-bound.
What were some of your first jobs — and what did they teach you?
Here’s a powerful story about what it’s like to lose a job, and a career, that you love — and turn into someone who, like millions do in many places, just gets up every morning and does his best anyway:
First comes rage. The rage of impotence.
It’s not easy being nobody, especially when you used to be somebody. But times are tough; jobs are scarce. When you’re falling straight down the financial cliff face, you reach out to grab hold of anything available to stop your descent and there, just before you land in a homeless shelter or move in with your sister, is Uber….
I think of Uber as a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just . . . nobody.
When I first started driving, I talked to every passenger. I engaged in conversation about the city, life and politics. I told them about my work as a reporter, and as a strip club manager. I felt the need to say, “I’m not really an Uber driver. I am someone too. Just like you!”
The writer, John Koopman, used to be a journalist at a major U.S. newspaper — a job, today, that has all the future growth potential of a Zeppelin operator.
More than 30,000 of us, (I was laid off from the New York Daily News in 2006), have in recent years lost well-paid staff jobs at places we liked, doing work we enjoyed with people we respected. Our industry is in chaos, and well-paid newspaper jobs are being replaced with fewer digital ones, often paying far less.
Many career journalists also make a trade-off, settling for what’s called “psychic income.”
No, not clairvoyance!
We accept a lower salary — much less than you might think — because we actually enjoy(ed) our daily work. It’s a great way for publishers to get highly educated staffers cheaply and, with few unions left to fight for better wages and conditions, ask them for the moon.
The problem with invisible income is, especially after years or decades of it, that it doesn’t add up to shit — no retirement, no paid-off-mortgage, no fuck-you fund for when (not if) you finally get fired or laid off. Very few people now have a defined-benefit pension, so all that “psychic income” didn’t fill a 401(k) either.
And (surprise!) many of the journalists, like me, who are losing their jobs — some paying $80,000-120,000 year or more — are in their 50s or beyond, and now deemed “too expensive” for anyone else to hire.
So, no new J-job for you, missy!
Back to college to start a shiny new career at 50 or 55 or 60? Not likely.
So, for Koopman, it’s Uber.
For me, it’s freelance, and nowhere near the full-time income I earned 11 years ago, despite all the usual accomplishments.
When you lose your job, and your title, and your Big Name Affiliation — no longer able to say “we” about your coworkers and employer — who the hell are you?
In the fall of 2007, a year out of the News job, I was scared to death and couldn’t gin up enough freelance work.
I took a part-time job at $11/hour as a retail sales associate in an upscale suburban mall near our home. I worked for The North Face, an enormous company that has since bought Timberland.
We sold $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, Connecticut — and never got a penny in commission for the biggest of sales.
I stayed until December 18, 2009, by then grateful to be earning $450/month for blogging, twice my store wages, and finally able to flee.
My feet were killing me — and my soul was dying.
You can only be underestimated for so long.
I had been “someone”, (a writer, an author, i.e. a person whose work elicited envy), for decades, since college.
Now, like Koopman, I was deemed a peon, in humbled service to shoppers, many of whom assumed I must be uneducated (untrue), stupid (ditto) and had never traveled further than the mall parking lot (38 countries, for work and pleasure, in better years.)
When I opened my mouth to help a customer in French or Spanish, they looked at me like the dog had started singing Aida.
This is where Koopman is now.
This is why Koopman — and it’s such deceptive insanity to define your worth by your job title — feels like he’s nothing and nobody.
But in a country relentlessly focused on income, status, work, more income…a low-wage, low-status job marks you as someone with a big fat L for loser on your forehead.
It’s ugly and it’s demeaning and it’s really demoralizing.
Jose and I have a glory wall, I’m both embarrassed and proud to admit. We were very lucky, because we both had well-paid staff jobs at major newspapers for years, he for 31 at the New York Times.
The glory wall is the pile of laminated press credentials you get, and proudly collect, when you cover the biggest stories — political conventions and inaugurations, the Olympics (he did two, as a photographer), Presidents (he covered three).
I met Queen Elizabeth and covered a Papal visit as well.
Those glossy credentials publicly and visibly define you as someone with a good job and challenging, coveted assignments.
When you no longer have a lanyard or press pass or credential…you’re persona non grata. You can’t just cross police lines anymore, (as you can with an official city-issued press pass.) You’re not of the Times or with the News.
This has been a rough year, (and many other writers I know), so much so that I suffered persistent stomach pain for weeks and went for a check-up.
The pains have, fortunately, subsided, no doubt caused by work-related stress.
My doctor reminded me, kindly, what I already knew — you can’t assign your value, and your mental and physical health in this world to worldly success, a job, a title, a salary, an income.
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.
I so admire his work, and work ethic, that I asked him to share his ideas and some of his work with Broadside:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.