Recent reading…

By Caitlin Kelly

Trying hard to get off the computer and read more books.

Lots more books!

Five recently read:

Range, by David Epstein.

I wouldn’t have read it normally but got a free copy as research for an article and it was edited by a super-smart editor, (my editor on Malled.) The basic premise, comforting to me, is that being a generalist able to shift gears quickly and easily between ideas and industries (as needed) is a useful skill and one much derided in favor of being a specialist. I’ve seen this in my own worklife and as the (loathed word) “gig economy” forces millions of us into insecure work, these skills may be more important than ever.

 

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

Here’s a Vox story about Rooney and her books’ popularity. I have to admit I didn’t love this book, about two young Dublin women who used to be lovers and one of whom is now having an affair with an older married man. I would have enjoyed this book in my 20s or maybe 30s. Not now.

 

The Wych Elm, Tana French

Also by a hugely popular Irish author, whose other books I’ve enjoyed. Much as this set the scene well — also in Dublin,  a city I’ve visited a few times — and offered powerful characters, this one also left me cold. It felt too long. Maybe I really am not a fiction reader?

 

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Loving this one so far — the 1968 basis for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, two of my favorite films ever. I don’t normally read sci-fi but this is great.

 

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All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr

Hmmmmm. This one was a reminder that privileged young women with powerful and connected parents can quickly and easily carve out a path in cut-throat New York media while dozens of talented and hard-working journalists able to even get a job can do  theirs without drinking and drugging and breaking things — and getting second and third chances. Like many readers, I picked this up because I admired her late father, New York Times media writer David Carr. I also admire her skill as a documentary film-maker, and enjoyed her film about Olympic athletes and Larry Nassar, At The Heart of Gold.

 

What have you read recently you’d recommend?

Everyone needs an editor

By Caitlin Kelly

Like those narrow bits of whalebone that once shaped women’s corsets — invisible aids to visible beauty — editors save writers daily.

They catch our grammatical errors, query an assertion, challenge an opinion. The very best are gentle-but-firm and help us create terrific material. The worst are butchers.

Yet writers very rarely publicly acknowledge how essential their skills are to our more obvious success.

 

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Each story we read has been edited,  some more rigorously than others…

 

One editor recently made a whole pile of new enemies on Twitter when he declared that  most of the writing he reads is only made useful thanks to editors. That self-satisfied burn was not appreciated.

But a recent New York Times Book Review piece recounted how zealously and carefully one writer had been managed by her book editor. And nowhere does she explain (!) that this is now as rare and luxurious an experience as having a car and driver, butler or valet, let alone all three. I know no writers getting this kind of literal hands-on attention to their work.

By Ruth Reichl:

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The late editor, Susan Kamil, sat beside her in her office, going over Reichl’s work line by line. This, in an era when even agents have little time or energy to spare the plebes, let alone the P & L-obsessed editors they hope to sell us to.

 

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I won’t soon forget getting the notes on my last book, sitting in a motel room in Victoria, B.C. while visiting my mother. My editor, who had previously worked for NASA (it is rocket science!) liked chapters 11 and 12.

What about Chapters 1 through 10?

I panicked. That is a lot of revision!

A dear friend, also a writer, gave me very good advice: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

Thanks to Courtney’s calm and thorough suggestions — certainly not in her office, nor line by line or page by page — we got it done. Then, just as the book was going into final production, we went at it again, tweaking a few pages.

Digital story-telling makes it too easy to later fix a published mistake. Book editing is a high-wire act in comparison.

This past summer offered me the highs and lows of what it means to work with an editor. One, a rude young woman with very little understanding of the collaborative nature of this endeavor, left me shaking with frustration. Another, a man my age, has offered some direction, but has given me tremendous autonomy on a major story, the most complex in many years.

Like all writers, I will be nervous until it goes live, hopefully in the next few months.

That final moment of submission — yes, double meaning — is always scary!

 

A new challenge: Les Mis en francais

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Because I need to do something with my brain that’s just for me.

I play Scrabble on the computer at the advanced level and read a lot but want to keep the old head in gear and sharpen my wits as best I can.

I studied French for three years at University of Toronto, decades ago, but only to make sure I could work in it as a reporter, which I did in my 20s and 30s.

But I never studied French literature! Never poetry! What a loss.

I’ve been watching and enjoying the BBC series of “Les Misérables”, which prompted me to get a copy of the book — written in 1832 by Victor Hugo — from our library system.

I still have my trusty French-English dictionary from college, so feel ready to go.

I read out loud to practice my accent and had forgotten what a workout it is physically to speak French! I began studying it in Toronto in elementary school and later lived for eight months in Paris and have been back many, many times.

I like to say I am fluent, and am confident in most situations that don’t demand highly specialized vocabularies (science, tech, medicine, etc.)

We’ll see how many of its 1,651 pages (!) I can get through in the six weeks the library allows.

Have you ever read it, in any language?

 

Have you read other books in a language that is not your native tongue?

 

Do you stick with unlikable characters?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.

So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?

I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.

Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.

But how much of it can you take?

I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:

Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.

The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.

These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!

Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.

Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri  hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.

I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways,  appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)

Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.

Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.

Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.

I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.

 

Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!

 

How do you feel about unlikable characters?

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)

 

Loved this biography of Joni Mitchell

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a fan of fellow Canadian, legendary musician and songwriter Joni Mitchell, it’s a book well worth your time.

You know how everyone has a song, or an album that indelibly marks a moment in your life and every time you hear it, there you are — catapulted back to being six or 18 or 27 or 43.

For me, living alone in a studio apartment at the back of an alley in a lousy Toronto neighborhood — all I could afford — it was Hejira, Mitchell’s album from 1976.

The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.

On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.

It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.

I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.

Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.

Here’s the first verse of Refuge of the Roads. (Now, after reading this book, Reckless Daughter, by David Yaffe, I know she’s referring to a Buddhist monk.)

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
“Heart and humor and humility”
He said “Will lighten up your heavy load”
I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.

Five questions about my 2 books

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.

 

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

 

 

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When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.

 

For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

 

For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.

For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.

 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

 

They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.

 

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

 

My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.

 

Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.

 

Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.

Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.

Four harrowing tales — but worth it

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Whew.

I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.

 

Are you a culture vulture too?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)

I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.

I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.

My favorite media are radio and film.

I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)

Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum  (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.

I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.

Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places),  has showed me more amazing art.

Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.

 

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A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)

 

Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.

Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.

As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.

I recently loved Old Stock, a terrific Canadian musical that’s just ended a two-month Manhattan run, and is headed for Bristol, England and Edmonton, Alberta.

I also saw a dark/powerful art show, “Berlin, Before and After”, at New York’s Neue Galerie, one of my favorite (small!) museums.

Living anywhere near New York City costs a fortune: highway and bridge tolls, taxes, commuting costs, crazy-high rent so you have to take advantage of all its various cultural offerings.

A daily list of low to no-cost NYC fun is The Skint; (“skint” is a British word for broke.)

 

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This amazing image was in the hallway across my room in a boutique hotel in Rovinj, Croatia

 

I do read a lot, but mostly non-fiction, magazines and newspapers. I just finished astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir, “Endurance” and am now reading “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1929.

I write for a living (as some of you know!) so am always hungry for inspiration.

 

How about you?

 

What has shaped your cultural tastes — friends? family? the internet? TV? YouTube? formal education?

 

Any terrific recommendations to share?

 

How far to “open the kimono”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’ve all got hidden nooks and crannies…

 

I just finished reading a new memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, by a woman I met through a local writers’ group, Marcia Butler. She was, for years, a skilled professional oboist and her candid and powerful memoir describes in detail both coping with her difficult family and her highly successful musical career.

She also reveals that both her parents are now dead, so discussing their behavior, abusive and deeply rejecting, could have no immediate consequences.

In journalism, we call disclosure “opening the kimono” and, especially when writing personal essays, it’s a challenging decision to know what to say and what to withhold from public, permanent view.

Now that everything can be quickly and widely shared online — and snarled at by trolls — it’s even more daunting to decide how much to tell millions of strangers about yourself, sharing things you might never have told anyone before, not even a best friend or therapist.

Our stories can resonate deeply, informing and educating (and amusing) others. While reading Marcia’s book, there were several moments when I had experienced the exact same thing at exactly the same age. That was a bit spooky!

I’ve had a life filled with fun adventures — meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Brittania, visiting a 500-member Arctic village, traveling eight days across Europe with a French truck driver, performing at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty as an extra.

But, of course, I’ve also had many moments of fear and panic — dating a con man who had done jail time in another state, a quick and ugly divorce from my first husband, bullying at the hands of several bosses. Without the dark(er) bits, it’s all saccharine sunshine.

I too, come from a difficult family and have had many years of estrangement from both parents and a step-sibling.

So, which stories to include, and which to delete?

Which to highlight in detail and which are just…too much?

I recently had lunch with two women, highly accomplished journalists with awards and tremendous track records of professional achievement. One, a good friend who has known me for 13 years, is urging me to write a memoir, and I’m considering it.

But both women freely admitted that they would not. They’d each be too uncomfortable revealing the woman beneath the professional veneer, however truthful that exterior is.

Once something is out there for public consumption, you can’t control how readers will react, whether with compassion and admiration or scorn and derision.

I read a few blogs where the writers share much more intimate detail about their lives.

Not sure this is where I want to go next.

 

How much do you share in your public writing, like books, articles and blogs?

 

Have you ever regretted over-sharing?

 

What happened?