Posts Tagged ‘American Society of Journalists and Authors’

What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.


In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

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

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

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:


Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.


No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!


We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections


It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.


No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011


Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

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

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

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

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

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

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.


People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

Cotton years, cashmere years — what full-time freelance is really like

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, work on February 17, 2015 at 1:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Many of you have — or want — a full-time job. One with paid vacation, benefits, a boss, colleagues. Maybe an office of your own.

But one-third of Americans are now working as I do, freelance, temp or on some sort of contract. At tax time, we look forward to a thick stack of 1099s, the forms sent to us (and the IRS!) by every client who we billed for more than $600 per job. We can also claim a raft of business expenses as deductions, from car repair to a new computer to travel to a distant conference.

I recently spent four weeks in Paris and London; while in England, I reported three stories. I plan to write off my airfare and some of my costs as well as I clearly produced paid work while there.

My last staff job was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest newspaper in the U.S. I had a big laminated press credential I wore around my neck on a metal chain. It showed everyone I was one of the cool kids, working press conferences and stake-outs and racing every day, sometimes physically down the street, to beat reporters from the New York Post and New York Times; (they always showed up wearing silk and linen — starting Times salary being a cool $90,000.)

I enjoyed having a paycheck, the job less so. I was let go in June 2006 and have been full-time freelance ever since, a sort of work I had done many times before then as well. I apply occasionally for a full-time job but my heart isn’t really in it; I’ve already worked for three big daily papers and had the most fun there one can have and get well-paid for it. (As many of you know, the newspaper industry these days is about as steady and viable as a whaling ship fleet.)

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

But freelancing is a way of life that some people just aren’t cut out for.

How about you?

You must hustle every single day. If you slack off, you have to hustle twice as hard (vacation, illness) to make up for lost time

Clients come and go: editors get fired, move to Thailand or Berlin, take maternity leave and don’t come back. Entire magazines shut down overnight. Relying on a steady set of clients means you better have a lot of them. I see them like a pack of sled-dogs — you need a bunch of them, all pulling hard, in case one goes down or gets injured.

You have to be self-reliant. Tech support? Supply closet? Training sessions? Hah

You’re the CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, R & D, sales, marketing, distribution, payroll and the janitor. No one is standing by to help you so it’s up to you to find, create and nurture those relationships. You also need to set aside some of your income for this stuff.

Nope! Not til the workday's done

Nope! Not til the workday’s done

Working alone at home requires self-discipline

No one cares if or when you clock in or out. No one cares if you sell a thing. It’s all up to you! But, on the other hand, no one is standing in your way if you decide to double or triple your income this year — a feat all but impossible in any staff job. Your earnings are up to you. But you have to put your bum in the chair and get on with it. I’ve only turned on the television in working hours during major news events, and now just check Twitter instead.

Your networks will save you, time and time and time again

Paradoxically, you’ll need other professionals in your life far more as an independent worker than you probably ever did in a staff position. Whether you need advice on contracts or rates or how to handle a PITA client, you’ll need to find, join and nurture a wide range of professional networks so you’ve got access to people you can trust when you need their help. You also have to give it! I belong to more than four separate writers’ groups — one with 2,300 women writers in it — and check in with them daily. I find new markets, ideas, insights and offer my advice when possible; what goes around comes around.

My desk, in the corner of our living room

My desk, in the corner of our living room

Social media matter more than ever

You need to find sources, fast. You need advice, fast. You need to boost your brand’s visibility. Your new book needs thousands of eyeballs. Your networks will come through for you — if you’ve been a good egg for them as well.

Mentor whenever and wherever possible

The freelance world is filled with clueless, helpless newbies. They can suck you dry! Give them your help when you can; charge for your expertise the rest of the time. (I coach, $200/hour.)

Stay healthy!

Making time for regular exercise, social events, lots of sleep and healthy food choices will keep you ready to work hard. I work a standard six to eight hours a day, five days a week. I very rarely allow work to leak into my nights and weekends. Yes, that lowers my income. It also reduces my stress!

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

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

Have little to no debt, low overhead and a cushion for slow payments

The hardest part of freelance? Not finding work or clients. If you have skills, charm and hustle, you’ll find them. But even the biggest — sometimes always the biggest! — can take months to pay you. In the meantime, you still need food, rent, gas, health insurance, haircuts. A life! I have a $16,000 line of credit through my bank and two low-interest credit cards. But I never work without a contract and insist on payment 30 days after receipt of invoice.

Forget the word freelance. You run a small business

Too many people fantasize wildly about the incredible freedom they’ll have once they work for themselves. Yes, you will. But the romance fades mighty fast when your payments are months late or your work dries up (see: cotton years) or you end up, as I did in March 2007 for three days, in the hospital with pneumonia — from overwork and exhaustion. You must decide on your income goals and do everything in your power to make them real. It’s not a cute hobby working from home. It’s a business.

Your business!

Does freelancing appeal to you?






The writer’s week: 131-yr-old magazine killed and a last-minute TV gig

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, work on April 27, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly


Into Manhattan to see a fantastic play, The Junket, written by Mike Albo, a fellow freelance journalist who used to write a popular shopping column in The New York Times Styles section — earning him $1,800 a month — until he went to Jamaica on an ill-advised press trip. The Times fired him for a breach of its ethics code, (which is a long, detailed and fairly intrusive document for people not on their staff), and Albo wrote a funny, tart one-man show about it.

I meet an editor from a local paper, who comes out for dinner with us after the show; she mentions, halfway through the meal, she has a story to assign and needs a writer. I mention I’m available and win an assignment in the middle of our meal.


I have to find sources for a story so I turn to my two usual places: HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out, and my large network on LinkedIn.


Chasing down pitches made to a few editors, invoicing for work completed last week, getting ready to two days at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’m really looking forward to seeing dear old friends from all across the country and from my own country, Canada.

Freelancing is lonely and isolating, working alone at home all day every day, and while writers talk often by Facebook, Twitter and private listservs, there’s nothing better than a huge hug and a chance to cheer each other face to face.

Jose’s 30-year-old duffel bag, which I took with me to Nicaragua and shredded by dragging it on the ground, comes back freshly repaired by manufacturer Mountainsmith, in Boulder, Colorado. Between us, as two travel-hungry journo’s, Jose and I have a lot of luggage!




I head into Manhattan to meet Linda Marsa, an award-winning science writer whose latest book” Fevered” is amazing. I have no specific interest in climate change, (other than trying to adapt to it), so I agreed to review and write about her book as a gesture of friendship. But it’s so well-written, deeply-reported and compelling that I couldn’t put it down — and when the NYT finally reviewed it, was thrilled for her.

I just returned a few weeks ago from Nicaragua and she had just returned from Belize, so — even though we’d only met once before, at last year’s conference — we had plenty in common to talk about.

It’s comforting and fun to talk to a woman as passionate and driven as I am, even after decades in this crazy business. I tell her I hope to retire in a decade and she laughs, kindly.

“You love this business,” she says. “I do?”

“You just have to get rid of the bullshit.”

And she’s right.

We go to a trendy West Village Italian restaurant for lunch and order the chicken — JW chicken. Who the hell is JW? The waiter points proudly to a man sitting two tables away; the chicken is named for him. It’s delicious and juicy, but it’s just chicken! We order a side order of potatoes for $9. Nine bucks! They’re delicious and crunchy but it’s a small portion of…potatoes.

New York sometimes feels like a wallet-thinning machine.


Day one of the conference and I’m on the 7:22 train from our suburban town. I normally don’t even get out of bed before 8:00! But it’s good to get dressed up and meet my peers.

The very first person I see — of the hundreds who have arrived — is an old friend who is another science writer, Dan Drollette, who’s had a terrific career, winning a Fulbright and then working for four years in Geneva at CERN. I tell him I’m eager for more international assignments and he offers a fantastic lead.

Like every conference, some panels are better than others. Linda’s, on long-form narrative journalism, assembled three extraordinary writers who talk about the many challenges of reporting their books, including fear of personal injury, even death. It’s exciting to sit a few feet away from some of the best in our business and hear them speak.

Huge news — the death of Ladies Home Journal, a 131-year-old women’s magazine, one of the “seven sisters” of American mass-market women’s magazines, costing 32 editorial jobs — people who will now enter a crummy job market for journalists and/or compete for freelance work.

My husband, photo editor for The New York Times business section, runs photos with a fun story about companies whose products have sassy names, like this cereal, made in the same small British Columbia town where my mother lived for years.



At the conference, I run into a writer from Montreal I met there in February 2013 who introduces me to a blogger from North Carolina I’ve been following for months, who offers to help me with some questions. The Montreal writer also mentions a potentially useful conference in Toronto in June — it’s $1,300 though, a fairly huge sum for me.

The two days here cost me $358; unlike others, all I have to do is take the commuter train in ($20) and walk two blocks, saving me probably $1,000 in additional airfare, meals and hotel costs.


Having a horrible time lining up a final source for another story due two days after that one. I keep finding people and they keep refusing to participate. That’s unusual and stressful. I can’t write without sources!

At 11:15 a.m. — I’m fried from a busy week and ready to chill out — the phone rings.

It’s Al Jazeera America, doing a segment on American gun culture, seeking an expert to speak on television today at 4:00 p.m.  We arrange for car service to come and get me, (normal when TV needs you, and it’s an hour’s drive door to door from my home), and discuss their questions in advance.

I rush to a local hair salon to get my hair looking TV-ready; they will do my make-up. Good thing I have a few clean dresses always ready to go.

I’m given 3:30 to speak — a long time in television — but the host of the show asks me none of the questions I’ve discussed with the producer. I give it my best anyway, buy a bag of sugared peanuts from a street vendor, then slip back into the waiting car.

Time to go home and eat Jose’s fried chicken.


My tribe

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, work on April 26, 2013 at 4:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I spent yesterday at the annual conference in New York City of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,400-member group founded in 1947. There were writers there with Pulitzer prizes and best-selling books and HBO series and made-for-TV movies and options and…

A girl could feel mighty small in that crowd!

The New Yorker

The New Yorker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not to mention editors from publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic and the New Yorker, four of the — arguably — most desirable markets for magazine writers in the U.S. (Only one of whom, from VF, was female.)

Instead, it was a terrific day of fierce hugs and nostalgia and excited shrieks over new books, and books currently being looked at by Major Publishers, and awards and pregnancies and a friend’s daughter accepted to a good (if costly!) college.

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolat...

English: proportion of MRSA human blood isolates from participating countries in 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was Greg, who writes great stuff about nature and the outdoors, and Maryn, whose book Superbug, about MRSA (flesh eating bacteria) is absolutely riveting and terrifying, and Dan, with his new book about endangered wildlife of Vietnam.

In the hallway, I bumped into a woman with a suitcase and recognized Helaine Olen, whose fantastic book about how we’ve all been conned by the financial services industry I gave a rave review a few months ago in The New York Times.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen (Photo credit: New America Foundation)

I served on the ASJA board for six years and still volunteer as a trustee of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can write a check of up to $4,000 — a grant — to a needy non-fiction writer within a week. (If you can ever spare even $20 for the cause of decent journalism and the freelancers who produce so much of it, I’d be thrilled if you’d donate to WEAF.)

So I know lots of people through that, and have given back some of my time and talents to the industry I’ve been working in since 1978.

I went out for dinner that night with Maryn and three new-to-me women writers, all crazy accomplished and of course the conversation quickly turned to — female serial killers. That’s what happens when you get a bunch of newshounds at the same table; four of us had worked for major dailies and all miss the adrenaline rush of working a Big Story. So we do it now for magazines and books and newspapers and websites.

It was, in the most satisfying and nurturing way, a gathering of the tribe — people who had come from Geneva and Paris and San Diego and Toronto and Atlanta and Minneapolis and Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, all hungry to be in some small, crowded stuffy meeting rooms to talk about what it is we do and how to do it better.

We write. We tell stories. We wake up bursting to share the cool, moving, sad, powerful, holy-shit-can-you-believe-it? richness of the world, all the untold tales that surround us every day, just there, waiting for us to capture, pitch, sell and tell them.

That’s my tribe.

What’s yours?

Want The Writer’s Life? Here’s My Week…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, work on January 25, 2012 at 12:36 am
English: Scout at Ship's Wheel by Norman Rockw...

Image via Wikipedia

So you want to be a freelance writer?

For many people, it’s a cherished dream: work at home, no commute, wear PJs til noon, no crazy boss or office politics!

I’ve been writing for a living for 30+ years, and have been freelancing, this time, since 2006. Here’s what my week this week — typical in some ways, very unusual in a few others — looks like:


I normally don’t work on weekends but I’m facing multiple deadlines and have to interview people this afternoon — including boys ages 8 to 11 for a story for Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts, for whom I’ve been happily writing for years. With no kids of my own or nephews, I need some great quotes from these boys, one of whom has a shrieking sibling in the background during our conversation. I email several clients to track down late payments and invoice a few others.

I check in with the Hollywood scriptwriter who’s been writing a pilot script for “Malled” for CBS for months. It’s now, finally, with the network executives who can give it a green light — or not. How weird it might be to have a television character based on…me.


Eight hours at the hospital getting every bit of my body tested for upcoming hip surgery.

I’m home by 4:00 p.m., worn out from listening carefully to so much complex information. Terms like “blood loss” don’t help my nerves.

I still have to finish up my Boy Scout story; invoice for an op-ed I wrote last week; try to find out the status of two stories I pitched to The New York Times (for whom I’ve been writing since 1990.)

Working freelance means wearing a dozen hats at once: marketing, coming up with ideas, finding editors to buy them (at the right price!), billing, pitching, researching, interviewing, reading, writing, finding sources and — the worst! — chasing down late payments. One client screwed up so badly I still haven’t been paid for a story that ran in November.

So, like every freelancer I know, I hustle for work constantly — and use a line of credit to pay every bill promptly. My bank charges 19 % APR (!) and $12 every time I use the overdraft protection, which these late payments force me into.

I can only afford, finally, to get this surgery because I’ve saved enough to take 4-6 weeks off entirely for my recovery. Freelancers have no paid sick days!

The anesthesiologists’ office warn me that a typical bill for my two-hour operation is $3,800, of which our health insurance will pay, at most, $1,000. I’m in no mood to wake up facing a $2,800 bill. One more thing to try not to worry about.


Into New York City for a haircut. Next week my husband, (a professional photographer and editor), will take my new headshot, which I need for my websites, blog, book events, speaking engagements and other professional gigs. I get asked for it a lot, and everyone who runs their own business should have a good, recent, flattering one.

I’ve tried to clear the decks of work almost completely, so I can go into this major operation without worrying I will disappoint someone or miss a deadline. I still have two paid blog posts left and five days to get them done. I’ve been trying to sell a story about the surgery, but no one has bitten. (Yet!)


I fly to New Orleans, where I’ll attend a cocktail party at a conference of retail business owners. I’m excited but nervous. I hate turbulence and my last flight (home from Chicago in November) was horrible. I enjoy doing public speaking, but writers generally like to have our words speak for us, and giving a great speech isn’t a natural or obvious talent. Last year I hired a terrific speaking coach whose advice and tips made me much more confident.


At 1pm eastern time, I join an hour-long conference call of 15 fellow writers all across the U.S. who serve on the board of the American Society of Journalists And Authors, a 1,400-member group that advocates for writers’ rights, improved working conditions and pay. I’ve served on the board for five years and am leaving it in July. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m pooped. At 3:30, I’m speaking on the topic of how to hire, manage and motivate low-wage employees, something I learned firsthand when I worked for 27 months as an associate at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, and which formed the basis of my latest book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”


Play day! New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to visit. I’ve been there twice before, once in the spring of 2002 to interview men and women for my first book, about American women and guns. It makes a city a very different place when you’re there to work and try to get to know even a little of the political and economic structure and whose opinions matter most there.

Want To Write A Book? You Sure?

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 2, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  As the pushpushpushpushpush of book promotion and marketing for “Malled’ My Unintentional Career in Retail” continues — today offering interviews with two Canadian newspapers, a photo for my local newspaper and a radio interview — time for a reality check on the reality of book-writing.

Yes, this photo is of me, summer 2010 — mid-revisions!

Writing a book, for me, is a tremendous joy. I love having months to think long and hard about what I am trying to say and how. I love doing interviews for background and a better understanding of my subject, and reading entire books — ten for this one, on low-wage labor, retail and management — to make sure my individual impressions aren’t overly personal and limited.

But, having just attended the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in Manhattan, I also appreciated listening to the comfort and wisdom of more experienced friends who have published five or six or eight books.

They all know the giddy excitement of signing that contract with your publisher, getting the manuscript in and accepted, publication date — and the anxiety over reviews. Will you get any? How will you handle the savage ones?

Writing and promoting your book(s) is an extraordinary process. It can also be an emotional roller-coaster.

At a dinner table after the conference, four of us — who had never before met — brainstormed how one of us, a fellow Canadian, might best introduce his non-fiction book, The Erotic Engine, into the American market.

Three of us: a education specialist from Vermont, a home decor writer from Florida and I all gave it our best efforts, all while eating some great Italian food.

I love and live for this sort of generosity and camaraderie. At the conference, when I went up to panelist Kathleen Flinn, whose memoir of attending cooking school in Paris, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” was one of my favorites, she was excited to meet me. (!) She’d heard about Malled, as had many people at the conference.

Becoming a published author and climbing the many necessary steps along the way: finding an agent, writing a proposal, finding a publisher, writing, revising and then tirelessly marketing and promoting it, is a little like joining the military.

Really want to write and sell your book? Drop and give me twenty, soldier!

Whatever branch of service — cookbooks, YA, memoir, biography, history — we earn those stripes! We all experience many of the same issues and challenges and — like veterans of battle — know that we all know intimately what others only fantasize about.

Writing books means joining a long ladder of success, with many rungs.

Some books become huge best-sellers, leaving the rest of us gnashing our teeth in envy. Others become films or television series. Many find their own niche, buzzing along through social media and word of mouth.

Some just…die.

Do you hope to write a book? What do you hope to do with it?

What steps are you taking to get there?

But I Deserve It!

In behavior, business, culture, design, Media, Money, work on September 10, 2010 at 11:47 am
TN Fernando Trophy Royal Thomian Regatta Overa...
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It’s that time of year again — applying to the two writing grants I keep hoping to win, one worth $10,000, the other either $17,000 or $35,000. They are given to writers of non-fiction and journalism and, with the recession driving 24,000 print writers out of work in the past few years, the line-up is getting longer and longer and longer.

The first grant is given to only 15 percent of applicants. Nice odds!

It’ll be my fourth time reaching for that specific brass ring and, because there is someone official at the organization to discuss it, I called her to ask how, if at all, I could increase my chances.

“You don’t deserve it just because you’ve applied four times!” she huffed.

“The work has to be excellent. It has to be art!

So the question arises.

Do I deserve it? I think so! Why else would I even bother applying if I didn’t?

Someone is going to win. Maybe one of these years it will be my turn.

A jury of only three people make those decisions. The official let slip that some writers are deemed so terrific they just keep winning year after year.

Oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments. They deserve it more than I do?

Sad truth is, when creative people in a specific field who’ve been plugging away at their game compete directly for limited goodies, it gets ugly fast. Among professional writers within each genre, we all know (of) one another — attending the same schools, MFA programs, workshops, conferences.

We may even share agents or editors or friends or teach in the same college just down the hallway.

I serve on the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and at last fall’s board meeting was walking to dinner with two fellow members, both terrific women I really like. Turns out we had all applied for the same fellowship!

(None of us won.)

And when “art” and its value is deeply, hopelessly subjectively relative, who — really — does deserve any specific grant, fellowship or prize?

I don’t have kids, but kids today are being given prizes and ribbons and trophies for breathing. This is unwise.

As one disgusted Mom recently wrote in The New York Times:

My son’s trophy named him the 2010 East Brunswick, N.J., Baseball League Instructional 7’s “Most Valuable Player.” I was stunned. Had my skinny but baseball-addicted son really surpassed all his teammates? As the rest of the boys received their awards, the truth came out: The inscription was the same on every trophy.

Welcome to parenting in the 21st century. As Garrison Keillor says, all the children are above average. But is this really what we want to teach our kids?

I swear I’ve heard kids sneeze and a Mom coo: “Good job!”

It’s mighty tough out there once you start competing hard for the very small tip of the pyramid. Knowing — which some organized athletic competition often still does teach effectively — that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose is useful preparation for a lifetime of not winning.

No one is eager to lose.

But winning doesn’t define you permanently as a “winner” any more than losing means you’re a “loser.”

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At ASJA Today, Professional Development Day — See You Tomorrow

In business, Media on April 23, 2010 at 7:40 am

Today is the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, whose board meeting was yesterday — I’m on its board, along with a dozen others from all over the country, from a New York Times’ best-selling author from Virginia to an environmental writer from Florida to our president, who’s leading our good, endless fight against Google scanning our books — with no pay to us.

I’ll meet three new-to-me editors today, in a sort of speed dating kind of way, hoping to win assignments from them: two are from big national magazines and one website. Our group has almost 1400 members and I look forward every year to seeing old friends, some of whom I’ve featured here, whether Greg Breining, who writes about the outdoors in Minnesota or Maryn McKenna, whose terrifying new book Superbug is about MRSA. This year Greg was in charge of our mentoring program — for $50 you get 30 minutes with an accomplished writer to ask them anything you want; one of my former mentees, Lisa Palmer, is now too busy with work to attend!

If you’re ever looking for a place to make new friends, meet smart colleagues and learn a ton, consider joining us in Manhattan tomorrow at the Roosevelt Hotel or find us on-line.

Want To Join The Board Of The Met Or MOMA? Bring $10 Million

In art, culture on April 5, 2010 at 7:36 am
Photograph of the facade of the Metropolitan O...

$250,000 will get you their board. Image via Wikipedia

So you like art and dress well and want to meet some of Manhattan’s most wealthy and powerful?

Write a check for $10 million, or maybe just $5 million, reports The New York Times:

“For those who can, we have an expectation and we try to be very clear about that expectation,” said Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, whose board members are generally asked to contribute $250,000 upfront and on an annual basis.

Sometimes the generosity of veteran trustees will exceed expectations. Consider the $30 million gift Ann Ziff made last month to the Metropolitan Opera, which simultaneously announced that she is to become its next chairwoman.

The pressure to raise money from volunteer boards has intensified as the economy slumped and broader charitable giving declined.

Yet even with weakened portfolios, many people of means remain willing to answer the call because a spot on a cultural board is among the most coveted prizes in a city of strivers and mega-achievers. And spots are limited: the New York City Ballet, for example, has 40 voting members; the Museum of Natural History has 56.

The rewards of service are many: social status, the personal satisfaction of doing good, the chance to rub shoulders with Rockefellers and Lauders, and a say in setting the intellectual course of the nation, if not the world, through a leading museum or performing arts institution.

I sit on two boards, neither in this social or financial stratosphere — but one that does require a financial commitment from me. It’s many fewer zeroes, but it requires me to pony up to work with fellow trustees for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which gives emergency grants of $5,000 for first-time recipients to writers whose work qualifies. This terrible economy, which has decimated print journalism, has hit independent writers — even those successful for decades — extremely hard.

Every single grant application I read is a reminder to be grateful as hell we have insurance, my partner still has a job and, for now, we remain in good health.

The good news? We usually get a check out within a week.

I also sit on the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, whose annual conference is this month in Manhattan, April 24 and 25.

Do you sit on a board? Why do you do it? What have you learned?


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