The writer’s week

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.

 

 

 

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Strap in and hang on!

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

Monday

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

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

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

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

Not a good start to the week, or month.

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Tuesday

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

More questions on one story from an editor. Sigh.

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

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

Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus ca change…

Friday

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

Sometimes you just need a rest!

How was your week?

10 reasons that teaching is tough (but enjoyable)

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

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

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

But it’s a marathon.

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

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

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

From the Washington Post:

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

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

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

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

 

Here are ten ways I find this work challenging:

Teaching demands self-confidence

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

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

Teaching demands stamina

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

Teaching demands self-control

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

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

Teaching demands self-awareness

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

Teaching demands exquisite attention to time management

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

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

Teaching means not taking anything personally

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

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

Teaching demands emotional openness and sensitivity

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

 

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

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

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

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

Teaching means trying to fully engage a room full of strangers

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

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

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

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

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

How do you address or resolve those challenges?