Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a wise post about how to sustain a creative or artistic career.

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from American writer, actor and director Greta Gerwig, whose most recent film “Frances Ha” I loved and blogged about:

I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

I play softball, and it’s taught me a lot, as sports will do, about how I handle or manage my emotions and failure, on or off the field.

Many new writers, quivering (Rocky Horror Picture show-style) with anticipation, are quite firmly persuaded that they are going to be become rich, famous, adored by millions. This lies in distinctly naive/annoying contrast to the lived experience of thousands of talented, accomplished, award-winning writers who have never had, and never will have, a best-seller or a movie made of their work.

Working artists get up every day and step up to the plate, as it were, and swing. We might hit a single, or a double. On a very good day, we’ll hit a triple.

A home run? If we focused on achieving that, and only that, we’d probably stay in bed in the fetal position.

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: NathanGunter)

The creative life looks so alluring — wake up at noon, sip an espresso, read, do your artistic thing for a few hours. You know, be creative.

A recent NYT obituary of publisher Andre Schiffrin was blunt about the cost of his principles:

…one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line.

The truth?

You have to want creative success (let alone a livable income), quite badly, as this recent New York Times piece reminds us:

The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive.Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the
material rewards it brings…But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic
system has almost nothing to offer…

The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partnerwhose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

Even New York magazine, which birthed the careers of some stellar writers and editors since it began publishing in 1968, just announced they’re cutting back from a weekly publishing schedule to bi-weekly.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

I spent 8.5 hours yesterday at a conference held in the august halls of Columbia Journalism School, traditionally one of the country’s most prestigious gateways into the writer’s life.

The entire day was devoted to the future of digital longform journalism — how to create, produce and promote work on the web.

Payment for writers — or persistent, bald-faced lack of it — was the huge elephant in the room. No one dared challenge the confident 20 and 30-somethings up on the stage, with their ponytails and costly new shoes, about their insistence they need great writing to actually fill up their sites.

While offering little or no money to writers.

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I found this sad, infuriating and highly instructive. I spoke to a few young journalists in the hall — who shared stories of a life without health insurance, flitting desperately from one freelance, part-time or contract job to the next, their hunger for some handhold palpable and often financially unresolvable.

Ironically, the only people who didn’t reek of desperation were those still writing freelance for old-legacy print media (as I do) or those with coveted, rare full-time jobs inside someone’s corporate newsroom where — as one legendary editor suggested from the stage — “find the formula and mimic it. That’s half the battle.”

If you hunger for creative success — what are you willing to give up to get it?

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

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Want to start producing creatively? Lose the safety net

By Caitlin Kelly

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”

— Johann Sebastian Bach (h/t Small Dog Syndrome)

English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Te...
English: Young Johann Sebastian Bach. 1715. Teri Noel Towe seems to demonstrate that the portrait is probably not of Bach http://www.npj.com/thefaceofbach/09w624.html. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR, BETTER BLOGGING, ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE.

The (price of the) unconventional life

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are in their teens and 20s, in college or university, or probably headed there. Some are thrilled at the prospect of acquiring more formal education, possibly all the way to a Phd or professional degree.

Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in g...
Diagram of the gown, hood and bonnet used in graduation/presentation ceremonies of Ph.D’s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Others, like me, are wary of school, chafing in classrooms, weary of authority. Wondering how else — is it possible? — to acquire the credentials and skills they’ll need to make a living.

This recent blog post, by a student at Brown, one of the U.S.’s  most prestigious and costly universities, asks some serious questions about what “success” looks like:

i have a goal. it’s farfetched, extremely open-ended, and it might be fleeting. my goal is to refocus. my goal is to revisit this idea of being human and reinterpret the meaning of success. success has looked only one way for as long as i’ve known the word: a big house, lots of
money, a nice car. success has been the american dream. as a child of babyboomers, i’ve seen the american dream take hold and manifest itself in a lifestyle that is hard to say no to. it’s a lifestyle of security and certainty. but what i’ve learned is that this lifestyle, as enabling as it may be, has forgotten a lot of things that i find extremely important. it has forgotten how to be simply human and has focused on how to be monetarily prosperous. i’m down with the good life, don’t get me wrong. i’m just thinking that i might have a different path in mind for myself. know i have something else that’s ticking inside of me, and it can’t just sit at in cubicle and work for 8 hours then to go home to frozen potstickers and minute-maid lemonade. it wants to run wild, rampant, and ridiculously free.

I appreciate her passion and her questioning of what constitutes the “good life.”

By the time a student has been admitted to Brown, or any other super-competitive school costing $30-50,000 a year, they’ve likely been groomed from infancy to focus solely or primarily on the achievement of visible, conventional goals.

Everyone they’ve known — in prep school, at summer camp, in their SAT prep classes, on their sports teams — is expected to head in the same direction.

Up.

How about….sideways?

Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream
Surculture, Subculture, Mainstream (Photo credit: cesarharada.com)

The problem is, if your parents/friends/family have all bought into the same dream — moremoremoremoremore — it’s lonely and weird to step off the track, let alone figure out a way to do so and not live in a box beneath a bridge.

I attend a church with some very wealthy parishioners, so I’ve seen some of their assumptions of what their children will do. One woman, whose husband and daughter were safely ensconced as corporate attorneys, had a son, 28, who had not even — facepalm! — finished college.

He was not an addict, in prison or chronically ill but unfocused, and had traveled the country doing a variety of odd jobs.

English: This is a diagram depicting the perce...
English: This is a diagram depicting the percentage in US who have no health insurance by age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But her dismay at his wandering was intense, and, to my mind, bizarre. I finally met A., assuming he was a gormless wreck. He was funny, smart, observant, charming, curious about the world. I immediately saw he’d make a terrific journalist.

When I mentioned my idea to a church friend, she gasped in horror, sniffing: “You can’t make a living as a  writer!”

I was furious — and told her how much this reaction offended me.

This, while I was coughing up $1,200 a month for my apartment and an additional $500 every month for market-rate health insurance — a yearly sum of $20,400 before car insurance, gas, groceries, dentist’s, haircuts and the rest of life.

Yes, it’s far from the $150,000 to $300,000+ that a young banker or lawyer can earn. The sort of work that young ‘uns from wealthy precincts are de facto expected to choose.

But it is a living.

It is a life.

If you want to pursue creative, non-corporate work, you will pay the price. You will earn less, far less, than many people you know or meet. You may never own a home, of any shape or size. You may never own a vehicle, or a new one. You may find yourself shopping for most things in thrift or consignment shops or on sale.

To lower your living costs, you might share space with others, or live in a rural area or work several part-time jobs.

It’s fine. It’s a choice.

But it’s a way of life you will rarely, if ever, see fetishized on television or in popular media. It is not a life filled with designer luxury goods or vacations in places your wealthier friends have ever heard of. Your social circle might be much smaller, filled with people who truly share, understand and live the same values as you.

And you may also feel very out of step with your co-hort; many people my age now own multiple homes. They drive $90,000 vehicles and run major companies or organizations.

I recently contacted a young editor about freelancing — the daughter of one of my high school friends.

If I had stayed at that newspaper, my first staff reporting job, I might be her. I might well be her boss.

Yes, that felt extremely disorienting.

But I also relish my creative freedom, deeply grateful for a husband whose union-protected, full-time office job frees me from cubicle life. I’ve had well-paid staff jobs, in offices in Manhattan buildings, working for name-brand publications.

I didn’t especially enjoy them.

Working hard, with steady clients, I make a decent income, enough to save 10-20 percent every year and still enjoy some of the things I love: fresh flowers, pedicures, travel. It’s still far less than I made in 2000; my industry is a mess and pay rates are lower than they were then.

But one-third of Americans are me, now — working freelance, contract, temp. Millions of Americans, certainly my age, will never have a job with a paycheck again. Here’s a searing New York Times story today; make time to read some of the heartbreaking 125 comments and take them to heart.

We have no “benefits” from an employer, no paid sick or vacation days. We have no access to unemployment insurance if our work dries up.

The choices we make affect our lives, now and later. The decisions we make have consequences.

Make them, freely.

But know their costs.

How creative are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

creativity
creativity (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I’ve been told for decades that I’m creative, which I consider one of the highest compliments anyone can ever pay me. (Of course, compared to people like famous musicians/artists/choreographers/thinkers, I know I’m not.)

So, for the hell of it, (and as research for a story for the BBC’s website), I recently paid $173 to take the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which measures creativity — using a variety of criteria, from emotional expressiveness to openness to ambiguity to humor.

The assessment takes about 45 minutes, with a variety of visual and verbal tests, like a page containing a large black tilted oval with instructions to turn it into something — anything you want! — within a few minutes, then write a caption to describe your choice.

Other elements gave me a drawing to describe and interpret, a product to improve and a number of unfinished lines to turn into drawings or designs of my choosing, all with my own added explanatory captions.

I mailed my booklets back to a distant midwestern address and waited, with bated breath.

What if I wasn’t creative after all? 

Luckily — whew! — I turned out to be in the 98th percentile, which felt good.

Now my much larger life challenge is to actually use this skill much more often, for work and for play.

There are days — and while I’m grateful to be this busy! — I feel like a one-woman industrial production line, moving as fast as I possibly can, gulping down lunch, to get the work out the door.

As a writer, this seems very much at odds with the notion that what I do is creative.

Ford assembly line, 1913.
Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I simply have no time to stare into space, waiting for some Muse to show up and tap me on the shoulder.

When other writers, (usually of fiction), complain about writer’s block, I laugh. I have no such luxury if the mortgage is going to be paid on time and there will be gas in the car and food in the fridge.

Here’s a post I wrote — chosen for Freshly Pressed — about the ongoing choice for those of us who make a living doing artistic work, between being creative (noodling, thinking, musing revising) and being productive (shipping.)

Serious question.

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate
copy/content/visuals and they want it now!

Here’s an audio link to one of my favorite radio shows, Studio 360. The entire hour is devoted to a discussion of creativity, and ends with a seven-year-old girl talking about her paracosms — worlds she has created and populated.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...
Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop which has its own doughnut production line thing. Tasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you a creative person?

How does that play out in your life, personal and/or professional?

How much detail is simply too much?

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate). How much — REALLY? — do we need to know?

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

— I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

— I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

— My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

— My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

— My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our private lives, when written for mass consumption, offer readers the powerful opportunity to feel empathy, horror, sadness, disgust, delight, amusement.

They can high-five us across six time zones — or trash us with vicious comments. It’s the deliberate risk we take in exposing our soft underbelly to the cool gaze of strangers.

Sharing personal detail can offer the writer a chance to reflect and make (better) sense of their own milestones, and help their readers do the same: divorce, death, marriage, the bewildering rejection by a friend or lover. In reading others’ stories, we can feel less alone, better understood.

Less weird.

I found great comfort, when I wrote about my tortured relationship with my mother, from some of your comments. As the painfully unhealed wound of my life from the age of 14, this issue offers a lot of great material.

But without a wise and protective editor saying “Um, you know, this might be a little too much”, bloggers run the very real risk of over-exposure. And the only editor most bloggers have is themself.

When I wrote “Malled”, I initially included some unhappy details about my family relationships, I thought important because they would offer context. I had five first readers, one my sister-in-law and another a dear friend.

All five said, “Nope, take it out. It’s too much information. You shouldn’t share that much.”

When I handed in “Malled’s” final revisions, I sent them to a friend who works in publishing for another major house, who offered some new and unexpectedly tart criticisms about the book’s tone. As my friend, as someone who knows what makes books sell well, she was being helpful and kind, even if it was hard for me to read.

My editor and her assistant, when I asked them, agreed — and we made even more changes.

My point?

Thank God for editors! Thank God for protective friends.

Those posts, however raw, remain available for lovers and employers and friends and family to forever find on-line. I’ve found far too many blogs that are merely verbal vomits, as though simply spewing one’s misery into the ether offers readers something of value. It doesn’t.

A blog post asks attention from someone who does not know you.

And naively assuming their goodwill, understanding, empathy and/or agreement is unwise. Some of the comments on amazon.com about “Malled” have left me shaking, as, in the guise of a “review”, people who have no idea who I am, beyond the narrator’s voice there, have shredded my character and impugned my motives.

That’s the risk you take.

Here’s a thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine about the perils of over-sharing:

Every personal-essay writer struggles with this line, and I don’t know one of us who hasn’t bungled it big time. I tried to protect the writers I worked with. On other first-person sites — sites where I flattered myself that the editors weren’t as careful as I was — I saw too much exposure. I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.

“This feels a little unprocessed,” I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege…

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves…My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.

How much do you share in your blog posts?

Have you ever regretted it?

The terror/joy of a new project

Русский: Изображение использования душа Шарко
Русский: Изображение использования душа Шарко (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Maybe a jet of freezing cold water against your kidneys would do it?

For the past year, I’ve put off finishing the proposal for what I hope will become my third, commercially published non-fiction book.

I had a gazillion quite legitimate reasons excuses:

— I’m getting my hip replaced (which crippled my hands?)

— I’m recovering from hip surgery (and too busy playing Ipad Scrabble)

— I have to go to physical therapy three times a week (which of course consumes 24 hours of the day)

— I need to make money first (actually true)

But the deeper, tougher, sighing truth is…

I’m scared.

Every creative venture for which you seek external interest, validation or sales — your Etsy site, your play, your poetry, your drawings or music or pottery or stained glass — must find its audience at some point.

If you need people to pay for it, let alone pay you well and buy more and more of it, maybe to pay for your food and shelter and your kids’ new shoes, the stakes are even higher. No pressure.

Like anyone with a creative idea, I want it to find favor. I also want, and need, for my ideas to sell for some serious money, for once. To finally get the editors with very deep pockets to call me for a change.

What if it were a game-changer? (What if it’s a total failure and no one wants it?)

(Which likely explains the voyeuristic pleasure of watching all those reality TV shows where people have to be reallycreativereallyfast, like Design on A Dime or Cake Wars or my favorite [yes] Project Runway. “Make it work” is a great motto for life!)

I’m also ambivalent:

I love writing books.

I hate the endless time-suck and income-drain (paying for assistants and PR help and finding every possible way to get people to read/review/love the damn thing) that comes with its eventual publication.

I love the thrill of an agent, then an editor saying “Yes! We’re in.”

I hate the crazy-making and ever-tougher contracts they send later.

I love getting enthusiastic emails from readers.

I hate getting shredded by anonymous trolls on amazon.com.

I went away for the month of June, spending two weeks alone with no television or company to distract me, telling everyone (hah!) I’d be working on my book proposal. I took all the notes I’d made, and the latest draft and my sources…and didn’t even take them out of my suitcase.

Nice.

But I started working on it in earnest last week — (which suggests the vacation had the desired effect) —  and, reading through my source material, found some things I’d forgotten. I started getting excited about this again and stopped doing everything else but that. Hours flew by and I kept cranking.

Then I cold-called a source whose resume and background, (being appointed to various committees by a few Presidents), were terrifyingly august, which I began the conversation by telling him.

I know that one of the best ways to up your game, when possible, is to get some Big Names on-side, people whose opinion carries weight and whose interest in a project can help you discern what larger interest exists in your iteration. It’s also really intimidating!

(The bad news is that it makes your stomach hurt with anxiety. The good news, if you’re smart, genuine and persuasive, you’ll find a few allies. Hey, all they can do is say “No.”)

But he took my call, and immediately got the idea. He’s as passionate about the subject as I am and knows this stuff inside out. So I asked (gulp) if he’d read the proposal. And he agreed.

I asked another wise source, and she promised to read it it this weekend. While it’s scary to show an idea-in-progress to people who know about 10,000 times more about the issues than I do, I’m also really grateful for fresh eyes and smart input.

Much as I fear criticism, knowing I’m on the right track will also help me pitch it with greater passion and conviction. (I realize as I write this, that within academia, for better or worse, you have a thesis advisor; I never went beyond my B.A., so I have to scout out these mentors when and where I can find them.)

After re-working the same material for months — probably like many of you — I need fresh eyes. I lose all perspective on it.

Do you find yourself dicking around and postponing work on your creative projects?

Do you find others to help you with them?

What successfully gets you — and keeps you — moving ahead on them?

As the traveling sketchbook show heads to Melbourne, here are some of mine…

This is so cool!

A library in Brooklyn has amassed an enormous collection of sketchbooks — 7,500 from 130 countries — and their books are now traveling the world, currently in Chicago. They’re on a 14-city tour, ending in Melbourne.

I love every single thing about this:

sharing ideas globally

sharing one’s art with strangers

sharing the most private and intimate place to stash your drawings.

And they’re now collecting sketchbooks for the 2013 world tour. Jump in here!

I’ve sketched all over the world on my travels.

Here (gulp) are a few of what’s in one of my sketchbooks.

Les Halles, Paris

I spent the happiest year of my life, 1982-3, living and working out of Paris, on an eight-month journalism fellowship called Journalistes en Europe. We were chosen, 28 of us from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, to live in Paris and travel all over Europe reporting. I got to know the Les Halles area, in the 1st. arondissement, well, as the CFPJ centre nearby was at Rue du Louvre. On one of my many later visits, alone on a frigid winter’s afternoon, I did this quick sketch with a sharpie. It’s still one of my favorites. (All these images are, in life,  4 by 6 inches.)

Le Loire Dans La Theiere

Here’s a pile of photos of the place to see what it’s really like! I did this one in colored pencil. This is a great tea-room in the Marais section of Paris. The name means The Dormouse in The Teapot, a reference from Alice in Wonderland. You’ll find it at 3 rue des Rosiers in the 4th. arondissement. Everywhere I travel, I seek out a cosy tearoom. Amusez-vous bien!

Freud’s Chair, London

Did you know that Sigmund Freud lived in London after fleeing the Nazis in his native Austria in 1938? And that you can visit his home, now a museum? I’ve been to London many times, and loved seeing his chair — which is battered brown leather — and the original psychoanalytic  couch, covered in an oriental rug, that his patients lay on. His family, a talented and eccentric bunch, has very much left their mark on British culture, from his grandson, legendary painter Lucian Freud to author and Financial Times columnist Susie Boyt, his great-grand-daughter who grew up desperately wanting to be Judy Garland. I did this quick sketch in pencil.

The paddock view, Castle Athenry, Co. Galway, Ireland

For a few years, my father owned a house built in 1789 in Galway, near the town of Athenry. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay. This is a watercolor I did of the view from the kitchen into the stone-walled paddock behind the house. He sold it, sadly, and it’s now a nursing home.

Sydney Harbor, Australia.

In 1998 I was crazy enough to fly alone to Sydney — 20 hours from my home in New York — with the goal of writing a book about women sailors competing in a round-the-world race. It was an insane commitment of a ton of money and when I arrived they reneged on the deal! So it became a very costly, albeit lovely holiday I would never have dared embark on otherwise. I did this watercolor from the window of my hotel room. One of the things that intrigued me most about Sydney, which you can see here, were its corrugated metal roofs.

In 1994, I spent 21 days traveling Thailand, from very north to very south. This was a temple across the street (!) from the airport in the tiny, quiet, isolated town of Mae Hong Son, in the very northern corner, near near the border with Burma. The only sound you could hear after getting out of the airport — one strip — was the bells from this temple. I walked into town from the airport, a first, and felt I had arrived in heaven. This spot remains in my top five of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.

Hope you enjoyed these!

Rejection hurts? Pshaw! Man up, ladies!

Aggie pitcher Megan Gibson pitches A&M to a Bi...
Aggie pitcher Megan Gibson pitches A&M to a Big 12 sofball victory over Iowa State, March 25th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week in Brooklyn, home to the hipster/indie/creative class, an event was held to help adult women better understand the most crucial element of their business.

Not their fancy MFA or Ivy degree(s). Not their raw talent or burning desire to Change The World.

How to pitch their ideas to those with the authority and budgets to hire them.

This is from the Poynter Institute website (which is a terrific resource for all journalists, if you don’t know of it):

Hundreds of women (and a few men) crammed into a standing-room only bar in Brooklyn to discuss ways to close the byline gap.

At “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” which was organized by women’s nonfiction storytelling organization Her Girl Friday, a panel of experienced journalists and editors rejected suggestions that sexism or gender bias is exclusively responsible for the gap. Instead, they emphasized the need for young female journalists to develop the confidence to let rejection roll off their backs.

“You can’t see rejection as a real reflection of your value,” said New York Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan. “Every day, seasoned reporters pitch and get told no. Practicing pitching makes you a better pitcher. Rejection is part of the process.”

New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary, who hosted the discussion, said that as a young reporter she was so afraid of rejection that she would often agonize over her pitches for weeks or even months at a time. Meanwhile, she said, her male counterparts would happily send off pitches they had written in a day.

I’m going to piss a few of you off here and I’m fine with that.

Grow a pair!

I grew up in a family of full-time freelancers. My father directed film and television documentaries and series. My step-mother wrote television drama. My mother wrote journalism. No one had a paycheck, pension, paid sick or vacation days or any form of back-up beyond our own gumption and savings.

We ate well, drank good wine, traveled widely and wore cashmere. We drove new-ish good cars.

And rejection — of our ideas and pitches and plans and goals, no matter how hard we’d worked on them — was as normal to all of us as breathing. Nor was it anything more noteworthy.

So I really don’t buy this notion of women being too afraid to pitch, pitch, pitch again.

I wrote an essay about how well and carefully my husband cared for me after my hip replacement this year. So far, it’s been rejected by The New York Times, More and O magazine. I’ll sell it, or some version of it, to someone. Just not yet.

What makes me so sure?

Well, the essay I wrote about my divorce and pitched to Woman’s Day, which soundly rejected it, was bought by another women’s magazine — and won me a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor. Sweet!

But what if I’d curled up in a little sad ball, held a pity party — and never pitched it again? Rejection to a writer (any artist likely) is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every workday.

If you can’t handle rejection, you’re not ready to make a living as a creative/independent person. Even people with cube jobs — especially people with cube jobs — have to pich their ideas, (if not for their day-to-day living) for buy-in to get their projects approved, funded or green-lighted, to their colleagues and bosses.

Do you find it difficult or terrifying to sell your ideas?

What are you doing to get over it?

The creative class is struggling, too. Do you care?

De artist
De artist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just lawyers who are hurting  — 7,500 of them surplus in 2009 in New York alone.

Or older men.

Or those who used to work in manufacturing.

The “creative class” is as well.

Those working in photography, architecture and graphic design have seen a 20 to 30 percent drop in employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since August 2002, those working in the music field have seen their work opportunities plummet by a staggering 45.3%.

“The story has really not been told,” Scott Timberg, an arts and culture writer in Los Angeles said to host Kurt Andersen on the weekly public radio show Studio 360, which examines all forms of culture. “They don’t always have a tattoo or beret.  They’re like Canadians, among us secretly, silently and invisibly.”

“A life in the arts…means giving up riches, making a trade-off to do something they’re passionate about,” Timberg said. “It’s become forbidding for a much wider group of people…I see some of the best getting knocked out.”

Timberg also wrote about this recently on Salon:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

As both a Canadianan, living in New York since 1989, and a member of the creative class, I’ve absolutely felt the sting of this terrible recession. My last staff job, as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest paper, ended in 2006.

My income the next year fell by 75 percent. Fun! It’s now barely back to 50 percent of that figure. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs.

It’s an interesting dilemma because being a creative professional — like those who choose law, medicine, dentistry — demands years of attention to one discipline. You start out with talent. You may invest tens of thousands of dollars in higher education, workshops, coaches and ongoing training. It’s crazily competitive and the criteria of success often utterly quixotic and subjective. A lawyer wins or loses a case. A dentist fills a cavity.

But a creative person, in any field, can languish in poverty/obscurity for years, if not decades, if their work or style isn’t fashionable or they just doesn’t know enough of the right people. To really make it financially, you often need to layer the daily hustle of a used car salesman onto the independence of spirit of the artist.

Many of us just can’t squeeze both personalities into one brain.

Yet we all hope to enjoy the basics of middle-class life: a home, a family, a vehicle, a vacation once in a while.

It’s a dirty secret but those of us who work creatively, whether we paint, sculpt, take photos, design buildings or play in a quartet also want the things that cube-dwellers do. Our groceries cost the same, our gas just as overpriced.

But, unlike many corporate cube-dwellers, we may have to purchase our health insurance in the open (i.e. costly) market; in 2003 (when I went onto my husband’s plan through his staff job) I was paying $700 a month. It’s now normal to pay $1,000+…adding an overhead of $12,000 pre-tax dollars just to avoid a medical bankruptcy.

Especially in the United States where corporate billionaires are lionized, creative folk — typically self-employed and working out of public and the media’s view — are seen as slackers, stoners, half-assed. (Author John Grisham earned $18 million last year — hardly typical.)

Very few creative professionals in any genre or medium will ever earn that in their lifetime — no matter their objective excellence, awards or peer respect.

Yet other nations actually pay their artists to help them quality work; the Canada Council hands out $20,000 grants every year to fortunate writers who have produced two books deemed worthy.

Are you a member of the creative class?

How’s it going for you these days?

Which eyes do you see with?

In 1988, I took a class on connoisseurship, to learn about antiques, at Historic Deerfield, in Massachusetts, led by its young, enthusiastic director. Five women showed up for the class and our first session showed us a battered, ugly, brown shell of a chair. And a bright blue, very pretty Bible stand.

Which one, he asked us, was authentic — i.e. of the period — and which was a reproduction?

Of course, the repro was the blue box. To our, then 20th century, gaze it was small, neat, tidy. And so pretty!

But not at all the right size or shape to be true to its time. Inevitably and until then unconsciously, we were seeing it through a contemporary lens, thinking how it fit into a 20th century home and life.

The hideous chair, of course, was the real thing, and terribly valuable.

That class taught us some indelible and powerful lessons:

not to make snap judgments

not to be beguiled by the externally soothing

not to be seduced by mere aesthetics

Whenever I see an early painting or building or use an early textile, (like this one, in the photo above, that covers my desk, sitting beneath my Mac, a 19th century woolen paisley shawl), I wonder about the people who made it and used it. They didn’t have electricity or television or computers or cars or effective anesthesia or antibiotics.

I know my love of old things is some powerful desire to time-travel, to place myself, even safely and temporarily, inside the lives and minds of those long gone. I often start my mornings, if I wake up before sunrise, by lighting several candles. The illumination is gentle and makes me ponder how the world appeared when that was the only source of light.

Imagine how different everything looked!

Having studied interior design, I’m passionate about interior (and exterior) beauty, whether in materials, colors, use of space. I live in suburban New York, but I often buy and read design magazines from France, England and my native Canada to see how differently their homes are created. I find them inspiring and often much more adventurous than the looks offered by American publications. The light is different, the use of historical allusion easier and colors often much richer and more muddled.

Not to mention I live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. The bathrooms and kitchens featured in American magazine are sometimes bigger than my living room! Europeans are more accustomed to designing well and intelligently for much small(er) spaces.

I love that elegant European homes often mix very modern and very old objects, as our does ours; a Tizio lamp and 18th century engravings of a South Seas voyage, to name two. For inspiration, check out Elle Decoration, Marie-Claire Maison, every version of Cote Sud/Ouest. etc.; my absolute favorite is British magazine,  The World of Interiors.

Having lived in Canada, England, France and Mexico — each of which has distinct aesthetic styles that also vary by region, in materials, colors, scale, proportion — I see design with an eye that adores the brilliant pinks and blues of Mexico, the deep black-green of Canadian forests, the gentle tones of a William Morris print, the impossible elegance of a Parisian maison particulier.

This afternoon I walked the cobble-stoned streets of old Philadelphia, looking at homes built in 1752. How did those streets appear then to the first residents?

On Saturday we visited a show of van Gogh’s paintings and I was most moved by one image, of a field in a downpour, the view through his hospital window. If you click that link above, the painting I love is in it!

How did his physical and mental state affect how he saw?

How do you see things?

What has influenced your eye?