Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.
This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:
It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!
That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.
I really don’t have a lot to add to this.
I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.
This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.
His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.
You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’sarchives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)
It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)
If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.
I recently had lunch with a friend my age — a former executive at National Public Radio — who now travels the country with his very cool project, getting people into working for public radio, called NextGenRadio. I love his ambition and passion, at an age when many are thinking about retirement.
One of my spin teachers, in her early 40s, is doing the work for pre-med, and is 18 months away from taking the MCAT, the med school admission test. Another friend, a former New York Times editor, is now enrolled in a program to re-train doing yoga therapy in medical settings.
I’m slowly working on two new ways to earn an income, with no expectation that either will fully sustain me financially, but each of which makes me happier than journalism does at this point. I started writing for a living at the age of 19, while also attending university full-time. I enjoyed it, but it was also really stressful. Now the industry is in such a mess — and with pay rates, literally, back to 1970s and ’80s lows, (then a very good rate!), I’m ready to flee.
The two things I hope to do a lot more of are coaching — both writing and PR strategy (details are on my website) and selling my images to interior designers. I’ve been coaching now for several years and really enjoy it; my students get instant ROI and lots of practical advice, not the generic “You go, girl!” bullshit I so often see being touted by “experts” on social media.
My husband is a professional photo editor, who worked for The New York Times for 31 years and helped them win a Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 images, so we’re also culling thousands of my images to select the initial few hundred and set up a website. I began my career as a photographer, selling three magazine cover images while still in high school and later, to Time, The Washington Post, Toronto Star, The New York Times and others.
Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.
And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.
It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.
You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!
It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.
A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.
People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)
Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.
American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.
The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.
Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.
I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.
I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.
The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.
I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…
You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.
But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:
lack of self-confidence
death of a loved one
lack of education
lack of skills
lack of social capital
the larger economy
Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.
I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.
They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!
It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.
As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.
But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.
So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.
In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.
Talk to a person of color.
Talk to a woman of color.
Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.
Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.
Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.
We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…
We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.
We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless
When they’re not.
Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.
The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.
But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?
What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up—beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?
What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?
It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.
She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.
Every day I see a new book or article exhorting us all to fail — and enjoy it.
Like it’s really fun and comforting and the sort of thing you just can’t wait to blog about or tweet about or post an Instagram image of you at the elevator holding your cardboard box with all your shit in it after doing the walk of shame from your desk when they’ve just canned you.
Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.
A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.
Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.
Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.
Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.
But I’m damn glad it’s 2016, because 2015 really kicked my ass in some new and excruciating ways.
Because four in a year, (and these are only a few of the bigger ones, the ones I’ll even admit to here), is a shit-ton of failure in my world.
Kelly’s don’t fail.
So that’s an issue right there.
I hate the tired phrase “comfort zone” — and yet I wholeheartedly agree with the premise we all need to flee ours, often, to try new things, stretch our wings, learn new skills and behaviors.
Failure Number One
I was hired to teach two classes a day, one day a week, at a schmancy private college, the kind where the rich kids fly home to Asia on long weekends and everyone dyes their hair purple and septum rings are de rigueur.
I had previously taught at several New York City-area colleges, no novice. I read up on millennials and what to expect.
This was different.
Tuition there runs a cool $60,000 a year, to study high-earning fields like…writing.
I loved the first semester, grateful for lively students who were warm and hard-working. What’s not to like? Half of them arrived each week 20 minutes before class began just to hang out. I really enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, not just a pile ‘o papers to grade.
The second semester was…not that. Suffice to say it started badly and ended much worse. I don’t teach there anymore and I wouldn’t if it were the last income source on earth. An MIA dean made it even more difficult.
Lesson learned:Adjunct teachers, especially of writing and especially in New York City, are more disposable than Kleenex. Without solid institutional support — of any kind! — it’s impossible to navigate complex scenarios you’ve never faced before.
Failure Number Two
I take on a web-writing assignment for a large charity, excited to work on something I believe in for people whose work I respect. The fee is fine and the people seem pleasant.
But they’ve never worked with an outside writer before and it becomes increasingly clear that they have no idea how to manage my time effectively, both being vague and micromanage-y all at once.
It gets worse week by week until finally it’s one Friday at 5:30 p.m. and we politely and cordially enough call it a day.
I lose $4,000 worth of anticipated income by failing to complete that project, and feel like a fool for not realizing how complex it would be.
Lesson learned: Ask a lot more questions before committing to a project, especially one that’s going to be edited by so many people.
Failure Number Three
I congratulate someone I know, vaguely, on Facebook about a great new managerial role he recently assumed.
Within a month, to my great surprise, he’s hired me to manage two complex, multi-part projects. The potential income is excellent and the content challenging. It does look a little hairy, but I’m a quick learner.
So I thought.
His managerial style proves to be a pendulum between charm and bullying. Our communication is both excessive and insufficient to our needs.
And the writers I need to hire and contract for work are fearful — naturally, given the state of our industry now — that they won’t be paid or paid quickly.
I reassure them, but with no sure knowledge of this man’s business ethics, or that of his employer. Which makes me very anxious indeed; he’s only one client, while my wide network of trusted colleagues is what keeps me working year after year thanks to their referrals. I don’t want to inadvertently screw anyone over!
Within weeks, I’m debating how soon to walk away, but hating the idea of letting down a large team — our initial meeting, (hello, warning sign) included 25 people.
I’m also hugely relieved — and out at least a month’s income because I’ve been 100 percent focused on this thing, not marketing elsewhere.
Lesson learned: If a job or assignment feels this wrong within days, let alone weeks, it probably is. If someone lashes out at me, I don’t care how much they’re paying. I’m done. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior at this point in my career.
Failure Number Four
I’m asked to chair a 13-member volunteer committee for a registered charity, a board I’ve served on already for six years.
I’m passionate about the mission. I have a ton of ideas and am really excited to see what we can do to advance its goals and make its value much more visible.
I choose a co-chair to help, as I know some heavy lifting lies ahead.
We have no training in how to actually run a board or a meeting.
We do our best, but are soon, at every step, ignored by half the board or undermined and criticized by three women, all former presidents of it, who have very strong opinions. Nothing we say or do is met with enthusiasm, and some of it with serious opposition.
Not a great start.
I’m soon spending more unpaid time turning to others who run or serve on other boards for advice and help. Demoralized and worn out, I end up in tears.
My husband says — just leave.
We spend weeks crafting our letter of resignation, trying to be polite but honest about why we’re quitting our roles, and the board — to be met with “I’m overjoyed” by one of these women who then sends the entire board a vicious laundry list of our personal faults.
Lesson learned: Walking away is often the only choice. No one can “lead” a group of people who have no interest in supporting your ideas.
Admitting I’ve made lousy decisions hurts.
Admitting to my weaknesses hurts.
Admitting I can’t take on, and master, new projects quickly is less difficult — but I now know for sure that opposition, whether aggressive or passive-aggressive, means guaranteed failure.
Admitting I was unable to rally the support I needed is painful and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what went so wrong.
We all like to succeed.
We rarely, if ever, publicly discuss or admit to fucking up.
But we all do it.
I’m guilty of sometimes moving ahead too quickly, leaping before I look deeply enough, perhaps. As a full-time freelancer living in a costly part of the world, we need steady income in the four figures every single month. I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the perfect fit on every opportunity.
But I’m also forever eager to try new experiences, face new challenges and grow my skills and my network. If I stick to my knitting, that can’t happen.
Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”
Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:
This scale of purpose is not for everyone.
What makes people happy?
Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.
Nor the most well-paid powerful job.
Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.
When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.
If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.
And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.
If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.
There’s never enough.
Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.
Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”
She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’
That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”
Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.
I’ve ticked enough boxes.
I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?
She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.
I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?
It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.
I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.
I value taking time off, whenever possible.
I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.
I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.
I value our strong marriage.
I value our good health.
I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.
What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.
Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.
But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.
Every day someone new, usually another highly-educated white HNW woman, is exhorting us to lean in, or lean out, or duck and cover or…something.
Mostly, I just want a martini and a nap.
I hate this barrage of “self-help” books telling other women to lean in, (i.e. work your ass off for a corporate employer and climb that ladder stat!) — or to lean out (bake brownies and say Om!).
Or, even better — from a millionaire who gets writers to fill her website free — on how to thrive.
Maybe because I grew up in the 1970s, in the era of second-wave feminism, in Toronto. We thought — really, we did! — it would be a hell of of lot better than this by now.
Ms. magazine had just launched and my late step-mother used to dance around the living room singing along to Helen Reddy’s 1972 anthem of female empowerment: I Am Woman:
“I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”
In the year that Gloria Steinem‘s Ms. magazine was launched in the US and Cleo in Australia, the song quickly captured the imagination of the burgeoning women’s movement. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan was later to write that in 1973, a gala entertainment night in Washington DC at the NOW annual convention closed with the playing of “I Am Woman”. “Suddenly,” she said, “women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, women really moving as women.”
So we all rocketed out into the world, excited and determined it would all be different now.
(Insert bitter, knowing laugh.)
Then we grew up.
So I’m weary of this latest panoply of corporate-suck-up advice and endless set of prescriptions — all of it coming from wealthy, educated, powerful and connected women — on how we should live.
I intentionally lean out of my career. A lot. I do this because there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I want people to remember me for?” it isn’t anything I’ve published, any TV appearance I’ve made, or anything like that.
I’d like my son to remember that, almost every morning, I snuggled with him for 15 minutes before we finally got up together. I’d like him to remember that I had the door open and a hug ready for him when he ran home from the school bus, almost every day. I’d like him to remember that I took up the clarinet, and started lessons with him with his teacher, so we could play duets together and so that he could be my secondary teacher. I’d like him to remember all the after-school walks we took to the river. I’d like him to remember how happy I was when he had a snow day and could stay home with me.
I’d like my mate to remember all that, and to remember that I became a gardener, reluctantly at first, and that I did so because he loves planting but hates to weed. I’d like him to remember all the dinner parties with friends I arranged for us. I’d like him to remember the house concerts, like the one last night.
And I fully agree that we need to carefully consider the real economic costs of when to chase (more) income instead of enjoying a less-frenzied private life, non-stop careerism versus time lavished on family, friends or just…sitting still.
The real problem?
This is such a privileged conversation.
You can only “lean out” if you have:
savings; if you and your partner and/or your dependents remain in good health and if your housing costs are free or fixed, (i.e. rent controlled or stabilized or you have a fixed-rate mortgage, all of which rely on luck or a steady income from somewhere. Which is…?)
If you lean out, away from well-paid work, you also need someone else with a reliable, decent income to subsidize or wholly support your reduced paid workload — because fuel, food, medicine, insurance, education, clothing, and specialized skills like dentists, all cost real money.
Not everyone can live in a hut or barter for everything.
And too many women are just worn thin, millions of them working in crappy, dangerous, depressing and exhausting low-wage jobs with no hope of raises or promotions or benefits.
They aren’t wearing Prada and angling for a corner office — but something as simple and unachievable as a steady schedule that actually allows them to plan doctor visits or meet their kids’ teacher(s) or take a class that might propel them out of that enervating low-wage ghetto.
I see little communal concern (Hello, Occupy Wall Street?!), and no shared outrage at massive corporate profits/stagnant hiring/excessive C-suite compensation, and the lowest union membership — 7 percent private, 11 percent public — since the Great Depression.
I don’t think unions are the only solution.
But focusing relentlessly only on our individual needs isn’t going to do much either. Too many workers, too many women, are still getting screwed economically and politically.
Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”
To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.
My subconscious conjured an image of a fabulous party, filled with other writers and publishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down completely, where there was only shared vocabulary and a fluid ease that would make the jitters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejection and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”
All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a backstage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…
There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or publishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the accolades for a few minutes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.
And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.
My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.
He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.
One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.
“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.
Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.
And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.
Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.
We all won’t have a career like his.
But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.
After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.
If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.
You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.
Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.
Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time
I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.
If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.
Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!
It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.
Find people whose work inspire you
This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.
If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!
Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?
The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.
Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.
Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you
It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.
No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.
Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.
We’re human. It happens.
Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”
Then keep moving.
You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer
If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.
Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community
I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.
You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.
I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.
It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.
Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.
Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit
No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!
Travel as far and as often as you can afford
There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route; eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.
Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade
You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!
I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.
Study the work of the very best in your field
Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.
Save a lot of money!
Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.
Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.
Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.
How badly do you really want to be a writer/composer/dancer/artist?
How much are you willing to give up attain that goal?
Sometimes having the choice to not create — i.e. a regular, reliable, steady income — means endlessly postponing the frightening leap into the void, of actually producing work you try to bring to market, to finding an audience, discovering that people are eager for your work — or not.
I started writing for a living when I was at the end of my sophomore year in college, as a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My parents were off traveling the world, long before the Internet, cellphones or Skype made regular contact easy and affordable. Neither gave me a penny.
I was on my own, living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, all I could afford on my monthly income of $350, money inherited from a grandmother.
That was all the money I had available. My rent was $160/month. Then there was food, phone, answering service, clothes…and oh, yeah, tuition and books; $4,200 a year isn’t much money to live on in a major city, even a few decades ago.
So I freelanced, a lot. I missed classes, (and my grades certainly showed it), to chase down paying assignments, both as a photographer and writer. I had a photograph published in Time at the age of 19. I wrote for the country’s biggest magazines and, surprisingly perhaps, am still in touch with my very first editor who assigned me work when she was editor of Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.
I had a weekly shopping column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in my junior year, paying me $125 a week, a fortune at the time.
But all this blazing ambition, fueled by real financial need, also carried costs, losses I will never be able to recoup.
I barely remember the people I attended college with as I spent much of my time in phone booths (remember those?) contacting editors to line up work or fight for (more) payment. I didn’t drink or party or pledge to a sorority or disappear on spring break to exotic locations. I was too busy working my ass off.
And so I went to the chair of the English department to suggest that, since I was already selling my writing to national publications, I receive class credit for it — given the choice between writing another paper on 16th century drama or paying my bills for another month or two, there was little choice for me.
The reaction was scathing and dismissive, one reason I’ve yet to darken the door of another university.
A highly effective way to make sure you’re actually producing — and not just talking about it all the time — is to actually rely on the income from your work.
I do realize this is impossible for many people — with children to support, and/or a partner; who, as Americans, simply cannot afford market-rate health insurance or have crushing amounts of student debt as well.
But if you never have to test the market, what will finally impel you?
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