Being a “difficult woman”

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160805_095003468_HDR

Well-behaved women seldom make history — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1976

The photo above is me, age 37, fencing at nationals, among the women who made U.S. sports history by being the first to fence saber at that level.

Loved this recent column by stroppy British business journo Lucy Kellaway, initially published in the Financial Times:

Being difficult at work is not generally thought to be a good thing. On Amazon there are 1,387 titles on how to deal with difficult people, including Since Strangling Isn’t an Option. I failed to find a single volume called What to do When the Difficult Person is Me. Or How to be Difficult and Influence People.

As a columnist, being difficult is part of the job – if you do not enjoy sometimes getting up the noses of readers, you are too bland to be any good. Indeed, as a journalist, being personally difficult can serve you rather well. I can think of one or two writers who are so impossible their text is never tampered with. Their words invariably command pride of place because no editor can face the fuss that would result from doing otherwise.

Being difficult has other advantages too. It means that people tend not to lean on you for small favours. As one of the most important tricks to survival in the corporate world is to avoid grunt work, this makes it a powerful weapon. Being difficult also means you are likely to be better at getting your own way. It is a balancing act – you must be difficult enough to insist that things are done as you see fit, without being so difficult that people refuse to work with you.

In my first ever newspaper job, at 26, for the national daily Globe & Mail, I won that moniker as well.

I like it.

I’ve been reading Roxane Gay’s book of essays, Bad Feminist, in which she ponders the problem of being likable, of needing and wanting to be likable — and how playing along with the status quo so often weakens us as women.

“Even from a young age I understood that when a girl in unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman.

Women who stand up for themselves, and others, are often labeled “difficult” — as in non-pliable, not sufficiently obedient or deferential or polite or, worst of all, just not very “nice.”

Not friendly.

As though these were the most crucial attributes a woman can offer to the world.

A must-read book for every woman who wants to remain alive, safe and free from criminal predation is The Gift of Fear.

I was given it by a man I dated in 1998 — a con man, a convicted criminal I discovered had served time in Chicago and moved to New York where he found fresh victims, which included me. Being a lot more difficult would have kept me safe from him, but I was lonely, isolated and vulnerable to sustained attention.

This smart, tough book, written by a security expert, makes very clear that our wish to be seen as kind or welcoming, as unthreatening, can kill us.

Of course, no one wants to work with or live with or marry or be friends with someone who’s always a frosty bitch or a draaaaaaama queen or queen bee.

You can be “difficult” and still be someone people love deeply and respect the hell out of — it just might be a much smaller circle.

When I meet a woman, or hear about one whose accomplishments I admire, I rarely care if she is or was a likable person.

Better she be passionate, compassionate, principled, intelligent, articulate, active, connected, courageous.

As resistance to Donald Trump grows, one American writer credits women with reinvigorating the left.

From New York magazine:

Women, with women of color at front and center, can be the engines of new progressive activism in all arenas. It’s a rebuke to the theory floated by some on the left that there is a disjunction between “identity politics” and politics, a rebuke to those who suggested in the wake of Trump’s electoral win that the future lies in moving away from divisive “social issues” and identity-framed movements and back to economic policies.

What this event did, on the most massive scale we have seen in this country, is reaffirm what has always been true: The impact of identity bias has always been economic, and economic issues have always most powerfully disadvantaged those who experience identity bias. Or to put it another way: Women’s rights are human rights.

It takes guts and determination to fight oppression.

To ask for the job.

To speak truth to power.

To ask for a raise.

To leave a crappy marriage.

To stand up to a bully, even one who’s not talking to you. (Bitch!)

To challenge the status quo.

It also takes having some money in the bank, a fuck-you fund to pay the bills when the boss decides you’re just too annoying.

It’s difficult.

Are you a difficult woman?

How’s that working out for you?

Do you enjoy your work?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160801_091455254

Most people don’t.

It’s shocking, and sad, that so few Americans enjoy what they do for a living; every new Gallup poll finds a majority of them, two-thirds, “disengaged” — a state of affairs that leads to endless, tedious screeds on LinkedIn and Twitter about how to “engage” your staff.

If you hate what you do all day, you’re unlikely to do it well.

That photo above is of one of Jose’s credentials; he’s been working freelance with the United States Golf Association for a few years now.

He got the job thanks to a few introductions, (and his excellent skills!) The man loves golf. Now they fly him across the U.S. to photo edit their major tournaments.

I lost my fancy newspaper job in 2006 and freelancing was going poorly. So, in September 2007 I took a part-time job as a sales associate, for $11/hr and no commission, at a local mall.

Long past my teenage years, I was the oldest member of our 15-person team, including our manager and assistant manager.

Initially, I really liked the job.

And yet it’s a job everyone knows is nasty — crappy pay, no challenge, tedious and repetitive.

Any job, if you enjoy elements of it, can make you happy

My fancy newspaper job had actually been a year of misery, (details tedious), the most difficult experience of my career.

So being once more liked, accepted, even welcomed — albeit into a low-wage, low-status part-time job, healed me. No one was trying to force me out. No one refused to speak to me if I said “hello” to them.

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

I was good at selling, able to relate easily to a wide range of customers, from the emissary for an Arabian prince to Finnish bankers to a Boy Scout. I loved the variety of people who shopped in our store, (The North Face), and being able to help them.

When you emerge from a job, no matter how prestigious or well paid, where nothing you ever do is deemed good enough, simply being able to please someone is a real solace.

It was for me.

Working retail also allowed me to use my French and Spanish skills occasionally, sharing travel tips with shoppers who were buying a backpack to train across Europe or a suitcase to go to Peru, places I’d been to and could discuss helpfully.

FullSizeRender(3)
One of my first national magazine stories, examining what happens in an animal testing lab.

Every job, even the most putatively glamorous you can think of, has elements you will probably never love — highly-paid actors often loathe the press junkets and conferences and interviews they have to do to promote their films. They just want to act!

So I appreciated this recent essay:

First, make sure you choose a career or project that you enjoy pursuing, one that offers present benefits for you. Keep in mind that unless you find small pleasures in your daily routine, you will not stick to it.

Second, add present benefits to your working hours. Listen to music, make friends and break the routine with social activities. Do whatever makes you happy at work; you can stick to your career goals longer if your work is enjoyable in the moment.

Third, bring to mind those present benefits that do exist at your work. Maybe you just have not been paying attention to them…You can similarly motivate yourself to engage in your work by directing attention to the positive aspects of your tasks.

As I write this, I’m wearing a sweatshirt and leggings, no make-up, hair unbrushed, listening to classical music on the radio aloud, (no need for headphones.)

I don’t have to get dressed or waste hours commuting, crammed into a crowded train or traffic or subway, leaping pools of icy water and slush.

I don’t have to pretend to like mean co-workers or a bullying boss.

I’ll go to the gym when it suits me, or go for a walk, or (rarely) even go to an afternoon movie. The freedom to set my schedule matters enormously to me.

I usually eat all three meals at home, saving time, money and calories. My husband is home today as well, sorting through a mountain of 2016 receipts to make sure we get every possible tax deduction from our combined freelance incomes.

Do I enjoy my work?

IMG_20160617_102113083 (2)

Yes, I do. But I also clearly enjoy the conditions in which I perform it.

What do I still love about writing, editing and teaching?

— Meeting and speaking with an amazing array of people, from Queen Elizabeth to convicted felons to Olympic athletes.

— At best, working with smart, tough editors and clients who expect high levels of skill and emotional intelligence.

— Finding and sharing complex stories with millions of readers.

— Learning something new with every story I write, whether pension reform, utility deregulation, air turbulence, Broadway stagehand work or apotropaic traditions in house construction.

— Connecting worldwide with fellow writers, some of whom are generous enough to share referrals and clients with me (and vice versa.)

— Meeting smart younger writers through my blog and Twitter.

— Helping others think more clearly and communicate more effectively. Here’s my website, with my classes.

— Intellectual freedom.

That’s not even a complete list!

How about you?

Do you love your work?

If not, what’s your exit strategy?

Fleeing toxicity

By Caitlin Kelly

I took on a freelance project in August that, while hardly ideal, sounded like it might be worth doing.

I was willing to try.

It was a lot of hard work for not-enough money.

It was also, though, a lot of hard work with editors whose skills proved deeply disappointing.

Last week I ditched it.

I rarely walk away from regular paid work; like every full-time freelancer (or anyone running a business), I know how difficult it can be replace one client with another or, more realistically, with three or four.

But I finally hit breaking point when I spoke up for myself (not a quick decision) — and in reply was smacked down like a puppy who’d peed the rug.

By someone barely one-third my age and with two years’ experience.

Done.

Anyone who grew up in a family where their feelings were routinely ignored, let alone one with some seriously nasty behavior patterns, knows that it can a lifelong challenge to parse what’s “normal”, (especially indifference to respecting you), and what isn’t.

To determine if it’s “just you” feeling shitty about that relationship all the time, or maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that, and you need to get away now.

To know when to stand up for yourself — sick to death of cringing and genuflecting to people whose treatment of you is miserable, but whose payments cover stuff like your groceries and health insurance.

And to know when to simply say, enough toxic bullshit.

Throughout my life, I’ve marked these pivotal moments with a piece of jewelry, a talisman to signify, with beauty and grace and a tangible memory of taking the best possible care of myself, the important transition away from a soul-sucking situation and a movement towards freedom, re-definition and independence.

It’s scary.

It’s not easy.

I don’t bolt quickly, easily or without much deliberation and self-doubt.

The first was the decision to end my first marriage, at least in its then-iteration, (deeply lonely, adulterous on his part), while I was 100 percent reliant on his income.

img_20161206_112047021_hdr

I was alone in Thailand, on  Ko Phi Phi, a remote island when I decided. I bought a coral and turquoise and silver ring for about $20 and brought it home to remind me of my resolution. My husband, of course, didn’t like its style. Within six months, the marriage was over.

The second was putting my alcoholic mother into a nursing home. Our relationship had been tumultuous for decades. The experience was emotionally brutal for reasons too tedious to detail here.

I found, in a craft shop on Granville Island in Vancouver, a small sterling silver heart that looked like a stone that had washed up on some beach or river shore, pitted and rutted, battered — but intact.

img_20161205_171357432

It symbolized exactly how I felt; I wear it on a long piece of cord.

The third was this one, to shed a client I’d had doubts about from start.

So I found this gorgeous small lock at a Christmas market in New York’s Bryant Park, a Turkish design. It consumed almost exactly the paltry sum I’ll earn from my last piece of work for them.

img_20161205_125126208

Open the lock.

Go.

Freedom feels good.

Talismans remind me to chase it, cherish it and never relinquish it so easily again.

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

dress-01

She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

desk-01

Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

saying

Why don’t women speak up?

By Caitlin Kelly

photo
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. Legendary for her ferocious biographies, she was so much fun!

Fascinating, depressing, unsurprising read in The New York Times this week:

Women’s voices are often missing and discounted in public affairs, even when they have seats at the tables of power. They speak less, make fewer motions and are more often subject to negative interruptions. Similar patterns prevail online.

If they feel at a disadvantage speaking as women, it’s because they are. In settings as varied as school boards, Vermont town meetings, community meetings in rural Indian villages and online news sites worldwide, researchers have quantified how women’s voices are underrepresented.

Women take up just a quarter to a third of discussion time where policy is discussed and decisions made, except when they are in the majority.

As someone — clearly! — unafraid to speak up publicly, whether in a blog post, letter to the editor, (with my letters published in the Times and in Newsweek), essays or op-eds — I’m not someone scared of being heard.

But so many women are!

I was raised this way, and many girls aren’t: I attended a single-sex school ages 8 to 13 and single-sex camps ages 8 to 16, where women led and their competence simply assumed as normal and expected.

I was raised by my father after I turned 14, and he never discouraged me from speaking out, (even if he should have!)

If you’ve ever attended a town meeting or a conference or a public panel discussion, especially when there is a microphone one must speak into, where you’re being recorded on video and audio, it’s an intimidating moment to speak out loud in front of strangers.

They might laugh. They might jeer. They might boo.

Or — they might listen attentively.

I see a similar pattern, and one that disturbs me, everywhere. If you read Twitter, and comments during Twitterchats; if you read letters to the editor in print; if you read on-line comments, you, too, will have noticed the paucity of women’s voices and opinions.

Only one woman’s name stands out as being an extremely vocal letter-writer to the Times, a professor at Brown named Felicia Nimue Ackerman. I don’t know her, but I’ve seen her published comments many, many times.

In one of the many writing classes I’ve taught, I urged my students to start writing letters to the editor, to add more female voices to the overwhelmingly male cacophony. I was thrilled to see one of their letters recently in The Economist.

A random survey this week showed three letters to the October 31 issue of the New Yorker (all women); 11 letters to the Financial Times (no women!); nine letters to the FT (one woman) and eight letters to the FT (no women’s name I recognized; couldn’t tell the gender of three of them.)

Our voices need to be heard!

We vote. We pay taxes. We employ millions of workers. We serve our country in the police force, fire houses and the military.

Why don’t more women speak up?

Frustration at being ignored, talked over or consistently interrupted by men. Responding can make us look bitchy, when it’s they who are being rude.

— Lack of practice: the less often you speak out, the more scary it seems.

— Lack of time. Too busy working/commuting/caring for others’ needs.

— Lack of interest in the subject at hand.

— Lack of self-confidence. “Who’d want to hear my voice anyway?”

— Fear of being trolled, getting rape or death threats. That has happened to women online, certainly.

— Fear of looking stupid or uninformed.

— Fear of saying the “wrong thing”, whatever that is.

— Fear of losing professional status, especially in a male-dominated industry or field. 

From Guts, a Canadian feminist magazine, written by a woman who fought against workplace bullying:

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.

 

Do you speak up?

When, where and why?

You gotta have a posse!

By Caitlin Kelly

MSDBRCL EC016
THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

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.

Do you have a posse?

Does it help?

The joy (?!) of housework

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, you think, she’s lost her marbles — for good this time.

IMG_20151003_105310683
The ikat is for our headboard, the check for side tables

How can anyone enjoy housework?

 

I do.

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy cleaning our home:

  1. 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.

IMG_20160319_105138305_HDR

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.

Yay, autonomy!

 

IMG_20150530_152345263_HDR
A table set for one of our dinner parties

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.

Bathtub02
I designed our (only) bathroom and never mind cleaning it.

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.

IMG_20140613_161852528
$31. Score!

 

 Is housework something you dread and avoid — or does doing it give you some pleasure as well?

Those #firstsevenjobs — yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160427_192020632

Off on the train, hi-ho…

 

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.

 

FullSizeRender(3)
One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

 

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.

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

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?

 

Does your job (have to) define you?

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20160326_095035471

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!”

Nobody cared.

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.

IMG_20151027_081113939

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?

 

malled cover HIGH
My second book, published in 2011

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.

 

Impossible!

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.

He’s not.

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.

glorywall

 

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.

 

You’re…just you.

 

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.

But we do.

 

Alex Wroblewski, NYT photo intern — and talent!

By Caitlin Kelly

Alex_Portrait_

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.

Caitlin_011 copy

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.

 

Caitlin_010 copy

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.

Caitlin_009 copy

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.