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Posts Tagged ‘books’

So, what are you reading these days?

In behavior, books, culture, education, entertainment, journalism on December 30, 2015 at 2:13 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

RifkaBrunt_Tell-the-Wolves

Check out this great post, by a Halifax librarian, about the 164 (!) books she read this year.

I’m the only person I know who loathed Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which she, too, adored and names in her top three favorites.

I probably shouldn’t admit this here — I’ve only read five of her 164. I, too, loved White Teeth and The Paying Guests, which I picked off a bookstore table.

There are several on her (fiction heavy!) list I’m curious about, including Yanigahara’s much-praised A Little Life.

But the vast difference between her choices and mine is also not surprising to me, because the books we choose, and love and rave to others about, are so deeply personal.

I know that some of you love (and write) horror, romance and science fiction, three genres I never touch.

I veer, always, to non-fiction, essay, memoir and biography.

Of course, being a writer, I gave and received books for the holidays this year; one of the ones I received is on the above list.

I gave my father the gorgeous new cookbook Vegetables by London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. I gave my half-sister, an ambitious amateur writer of fiction and poetry, a book of 365 writing prompts and I gave my husband, who grew up in (and misses!) Santa Fe, New Mexico, a book about Mimbre pottery.

I dropped into a great Toronto indie bookstore, Type, and impulsively picked up three new books — one that examines the use of language in poetry (a genre, embarrassingly, I never read), a book of essays written by women who work in technology and a memoir.

I also (always a question posed with trepidation) asked if they sell my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and they used to but did not re-stock it.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

Ouch!

The glamorous life of the writer means, unless your book was a huge best-seller, the odds of it appearing in a bookstore a few years later are slim-to-none.

I still, very gratefully, receive emails from readers for both my books and also have received a healthy check through Canada’s Public Lending Rights system — a sort of royalty paid out to writers when their books are well-read through library copies.

(Much as it’s very satisfying to know my books have sold well to libraries around the world, every borrowed book, obviously, means one less sale.)

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I love to read, for all the reasons many of us do:

— to discover and enter new worlds, fictional and real

— to learn about a new part of the real world and how it works (or doesn’t)

— to better understand history

— to learn how to use and structure a compelling narrative

— to be inspired by lovely language

— to share someone’s story through memoir or biography

I grew up as an only child with little TV time, so reading was my default pleasure and source of amusement; I was reading and loving Greek myths when I was seven.

Sent to boarding school and summer camp for many years, I disappeared into books there to gain much-wanted and ever-elusive privacy and some sense of personal power.

I was in deep shit for laughing out loud reading my math textbook in supervised study hall — when inside it was Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals.

Before leaving for summer camp for eight weeks, I’d head to a long-gone Toronto bookstore, Albert Britnell, and choose eight yellow-covered Nancy Drew books. Every week, a fresh one would arrive in its brown padded envelope. Heaven!

Right now I’m reading John Keegan’s The First World War, which was a best-seller, and I can see why — tremendously researched but clear and detailed.

When back in New York, soon, I’ll be revising the proposal for what I hope will become my third work of nationally-reported non-fiction. But who knows? It’s difficult to sell a book proposal and there’s no guarantee.

Some of the recent books I’ve read and enjoyed, include:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This doorstop won her the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly. I was given this book by a friend for my birthday in June 2014 but didn’t read it until the fall of 2015 daunted by its size, that it’s fiction (which I often enjoy less than non-fiction) and what many smart friends said — it’s too long! It definitely could have used a trim at the end, but I loved it. Much of it is set in New York City, a place I know well now after living near it for decades, and she perfectly captures feelings and characters you find there.

North of Normal, Cea Sunrise Person

I’ll be offering a post soon that’s a Q and A with her; I reached out to her on Twitter to rave about it. If you’ve read and enjoyed the American best-seller The Glass Castle, this will resonate for you — a story of a little girl who survived a crazy and isolated childhood, in this case in a tipi in the woods of northern Canada. It is simply astounding to me that she survived it with such grace and lack of self-pity.

Isn't this cover gorgeous?

Isn’t this cover gorgeous?

Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker

I previously blogged about this gorgeous book, written by a British Airways pilot who flies 747s across the world. If you, like me, live to travel and love the smell of JP4, jet fuel, this one’s for you. Lovely lyrical writing.

What were your favorite recent reads, old or new?

 

 

The writer’s year — life working full-time freelance

In blogging, books, business, journalism, life, work on December 22, 2015 at 2:57 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The NYC food bank -- which I saw this year while working on a story about it

The NYC food bank — which I saw this year while working on a story about it

Some of Broadside’s almost 16,000 followers are also writers.

Some wish they were.

(I used to offer here an irregular column, The Writer’s Week, but haven’t done it in a while.)

I’ve been working as a journalist for a few decades — sadly that now feels like being a polar bear on a shrinking ice floe, with fewer and fewer slabs of ice to hop onto.

Since 2008, 40 percent of us have lost our staff jobs and many will not find another, certainly those of us who are older than 40, let alone 50.

Some writers boast about their “six figure freelancing” — i.e. earning $100,000 a year. But virtually none of them are making that money from writing for journalism clients but from a mix of corporate, teaching, custom content and other much more lucrative but less glamorous or visible revenue streams.

I call it the Income Iceberg, the invisible work many of us never discuss publicly but which also buys our groceries and kids’ clothes and fills our gas tank and sustains us.

The dirty secret? The Big Name Outlets writers love to boast about writing for can take months to edit (and pay for) our work, sit on it until it becomes unusable and/or kill it outright, costing us thousands in anticipated and budgeted-for income.

And the Freelancer’s Union recently posted a lousy statistic — that the average freelance is stiffed out of $6,000 in payments a year, 13 percent of their income.

This is what my writing life looks like now…

London -- much more my speed!

London — much more my speed!

January

In England, I spend a day reporting on a non-profit group in a small town about an hour outside London. The teens are welcoming and friendly, and I spend an hour in an unheated warehouse interviewing one of them. To maximize efficiency and lower food/hotel costs, I do all my interviews, about six of them, in one marathon day.

I stay overnight in a gorgeous small inn, 200 years old, and enjoy an excellent meal. Perk!

Back in London, I interview their major funder, sitting in the lobby of the Goring, the hotel where the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) slept the night before her wedding.

This toggling between totally different worlds — the men around us whispering, wearing gold signet rings and bespoke suits — is typical of my work, and one reason I enjoy it, talking to the poorest and the wealthiest, speaking to both (or their rep’s) to tell my stories.

Journalism’s appeal for me, and for many others, is the entree it gives us into many lives we would never encounter any other way.

I  learn something new almost every day.

I arrive home in New York, ready to start revising a major national women’s magazine profile, 3,500 words, of a local woman whose work I’ve long admired. I spent eight hours with her alone, taking notes, and spoke to a dozen others to learn more about her.

She spoke really quickly and, because I don’t use a tape recorder, I needed physical therapy for my right wrist from note-taking for hours on end at top speed; I use voice dictation of my notes for the first time.

Then I read a story in The New York Times that her organization is now embroiled in a scandal. My story is killed. (Luckily, I’m paid in full, a sum that will represent almost 25 percent of the year’s income.)

February

I turn in the British story to Reader’s Digest, excited to have my first story published with them. But my emails and calls to the group in England for fact-checking, (a standard part of the publishing process for major magazines), mysteriously go unreturned.

They’ve shut down —  barely two months after we met.

Magazines pay what are called “kill fees”, a negotiated amount they offer when a story can’t be used. I lose $900 of anticipated income.

The campus is lovely...

The campus is lovely…

March

I’m teaching at a private college in Brooklyn, a writing class for freshmen and a blogging class of mixed-year students. Both classes are small, but they’re night and day in terms of the students’ enthusiasm and level of commitment to the work.

Like many adjuncts, I have no office or faculty connections, and no institutional support at all. When I encounter difficulty with several students, I have no one to turn to for advice or help; the dean has made clear we’re not to bother him.

And my commute means I leave home in the freezing dark at 7:00 am, drive 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic, then wait another 90 minutes for class to start. If I leave any later, traffic is so bad I’d be late for my own class.

Two of my fall students come to the cafeteria to hang out with me before their classes, I’m glad that at least a few of them enjoyed my teaching. I also visit before my first class with a new friend, a woman who teaches painting there.

April/May

I also coach fellow writers by phone and Skype, and meet a few of them here in New York City, usually at a quiet tea room or coffee shop. They take one of my webinars or buy an hour of my time and advice, $225.00

I really enjoy one-on-one teaching and the variety of my adult students.

 

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June/July/August

I teach a one-night class at the New York School of Interior Design to six designers, all women, a totally different experience teaching adults than undergrads. As a former NYSID student, it’s an honor to be invited back to teach there.

Jose and I take our longest vacation in a decade, three weeks in Ireland. I do a bit of research for possible stories, but mostly relax and recharge.

Thanks to some work I did for her at another publication, writing about watches, of all things, an editor contacts me with a huge project, 15 1,000-word profiles of non-profit leaders for the Case Foundation. The work will carry my byline, a long commitment to a project I find compelling.

Thanks to a friend’s generosity, we spend 10 days at his home in Maine and I conduct some of these interviews there from the dining table; as long as I have access to wifi and a telephone, I can work anywhere.

A story finally runs in The New York Times I’d written months earlier. Writers for the paper are only paid after the story is used, so any piece that sits unused equals (long) deferred income.

It’s a problem for many freelancers; like everyone else, our bills arrive monthly but our payments are routinely late, sometimes for months — a real, ongoing source of stress.

September

Sometimes the best story ideas show up in somewhere as banal as my Facebook feed.

One woman described a terrible day when her husband took their dog for a walk in broiling summer heat and the dog almost died of heatstroke — even though the car was air-conditioned and her husband stopped several times to give the dog water.

I wrote that story for The New York Times, grateful to find a good story so easily and one that my friend was willing to share more widely.

 

My last book -- published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!

My last book — published in 2011. Eager to write the next one!

October/November

Now working on a book proposal, a process every non-fiction writer must go through. It’s an intellectual blueprint, a layout of what the book would be, why it matters, why now and to whom. It’s a shit-ton of unpaid spec work, in addition to my paid work.

I become co-chair of a volunteer board of 13 fellow writers. I have no training or experience running a board, although I’ve served on two of them for years.

The ongoing freelance challenge each of us faces, finding interesting, well-paid work you might even enjoy and can also do well and quickly enough to pull in significant income every single month.

December

Marketing!

People who want to write for a living fantasize that they’ll…write for a living. In reality, much of my time is spent marketing my skills and ideas to past and future clients. Some of those ideas never sell.

I write two brief stories for a personal finance website.

A friend I met a decade ago when she was a foreign correspondent for the Times invites me to lunch. She has a fantastic staff job doing investigative work. It’s comforting to talk to someone who really understands what producing high-quality journalism demands, with its joys and frustrations.

We both crave tough editors to keep up sharp and readers who respond to the finished work, some of which consumes months, even years.

I email my agent to ask how the proposal is going. He wants to strengthen it and says we need to hold off submitting it for a month or so. No book proposal gets read without an agent’s cover letter. He knows the current publishing market. I defer to his judgment.

I head north to Toronto by train — a 12-hour journey — to spend the holidays with family and friends.

If you celebrate holidays during this season, I hope you enjoy them!

Thanks for making the time to visit, read and comment here on Broadside.

I really appreciate it!

 

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.

Done!

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:

Curiosity

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.

Empathy

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!

Attention

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

Essential.

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.

Patience

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

Persistence

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.

photo(45)

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.

10 lessons creatives can learn from athletes

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, design, photography, work on December 20, 2014 at 12:39 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.

But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.

Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:

Dancers work through pain every day

Dancers work through pain every day

Pain is inevitable, suffering optional

We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.

Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?

It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.

A great coach is essential

I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!

Practice, practice, practice

I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.

Take time to notice -- and smell!

Take time to notice — and smell!

Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge

In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.

Stamina is key!

It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness  — is often what separates champions from also-rans.

What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?

No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?

Just keep writing (and re-writing!)

Just keep writing (and re-writing!)

Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you

Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.

Is this your best sport?

If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.

Working through pain is simply part of the process

We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.

 

 

Please crowdfund this young British author — his idea is terrific!

In antiques, art, beauty, books, culture, education, History, journalism on October 29, 2014 at 12:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Josh Spero ed pic 2012 crop

If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.

He also edits Spear’s magazine.

Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.

We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.

A few Spero-isms:

“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”

“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”

“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”

Tell us a bit of your personal history….

From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.

University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.

Where and what did you study at university and why?

At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.

After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).

Where did you get the idea for this book?

One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.

Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.

What was the best part of writing it?

The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.

Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book! http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories

There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.

What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?

Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I  had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.

What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?

The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.

One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.

Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.

There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.

Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)

I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.

Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?

Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-stories believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.

If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here http://unbound.co.uk/books/second-hand-storiesit’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.

I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.

I hope you’ll support his book!

My two books — take a look! I also coach and offer webinars

In books, Crime, culture, History, journalism, politics, urban life, US, women on October 15, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, Broadside adds new followers, now at 11,893. Welcome, and thanks!

Some of you don’t know, though, that I’m also a non-fiction author of two well-reviewed books about national American issues and coach other writers.

BLOWN AWAY COVER

The first, published in April 2004, is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, called “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential critic.

My goal in writing it was to approach the issue of gun ownership, and use, from both sides of the gun use “debate”.

I traveled across the country — New Orleans, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas — to interview American women, of all ages, races, income levels and political views, whose lives had been altered forever by gun violence, (by them and/or against them or a loved one),  and those whose firearms are an integral part of their daily lives and identities, whether they work in corrections, law enforcement, the military or choose to hunt or shoot trap, skeet or clays.

Some have also chosen to buy a handgun, some carrying it with them everywhere, as their “protection firearm.”

In rural Texas, I met women who had saved their own lives with a handgun and a woman running a lucrative hunting operation on land she had inherited, land too dry and isolated for any other profitable use.

On 9/11, a woman named Patty Varone saved the life of then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani — I was the only reporter she ever spoke to about that horrific day; she was his NYPD bodyguard and her powerful story is in my book as well.

I don’t own a gun nor have any desire to — although I did a lot of shooting and weapons training, firing everything from a .22 to a Magnum 357 to a Glock 9mm. But I now know why so many American women who choose one for self-defense, or for hunting or for sport, make that choice for themselves.

In the years since, I’ve appeared many times on television and radio, from NPR to NRA radio to Al Jazeera America to BBC’s radio program, World Have Your Say, to explain — as best anyone can — the ongoing allure of gun ownership in the U.S., where an estimated 30 percent of homes contain at least one firearm.

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My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, came out in April 2011, and is three books in one: my own story of working part-time for $11/hour as a retail associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall; many stories from other associates, part-time and full-time, and a business analysis of why retail still pays so badly and treats many of its staff so poorly.

Fifty percent of those working in low-wage retail are gone within months of being hired.

They quit in disgust or are fired. No wonder — the work is exhausting emotionally and physically, the pay usually appalling, the number of hours ever-shifting and the odds of a raise or promotion to a better-paid managerial position slim-to-none.

Yet shoppers need and want smart, informed help, and an army of well-paid retail consultants line up at major conferences to yammer on about the “customer experience”. It’s a mess!

I worked the job not with any initial intention to produce a book, as many cynics alleged, but because, in 2007, the American economy fell off a cliff, and by 2009, when I quit, was deep in the throes of recession.

Like millions of scared Americans unable to find better work, I needed steady cash.

The book began with this personal essay I published in The New York Times, for whom I write frequently, and which received 150 emails from all over the world. People were clearly interested in the topic!

It was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given each year to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

I’d love to write more books and am often asked if I’m deep into the next one. Not yet!

These days, I’m teaching writing here in New York where I live, at Pratt Institute and the New York School of Interior Design. My writing clients include The New York Times, Investopedia and WaterAid, a global charity that took me to rural Nicaragua this March.

I also offer other ambitious writers individual coaching at $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum — (that price will rise to $200/hour in January 2015) — and webinars focused on specific topics like:

freelancing, writing personal essays and finding and developing story ideas, whether for digital, print or books.

I schedule the webinars to match your needs, working by phone or Skype, and have helped satisfied writers and bloggers from Germany to New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, N.Y.

What can I do to help your writing?

Details here.

 

But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, entertainment, film, journalism, life, movies, television on October 7, 2014 at 12:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Ben Affleck as Nick in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?

Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?

Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.

But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!

Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.

I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.

house-of-cards

So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.

I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!

Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.

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I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.

Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?

Why “I hated it” doesn’t count as cultural criticism

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, design, film, photography on July 19, 2014 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Early this week, a Broadside reader — thank you!! — generously gave me a ticket to see Elena’s Aria, a work from 1984 by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Lincoln Center Festival, an annual event.

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The auditorium was packed and I saw many dancers sitting around me, some leaning forward in their seats. The piece was an hour and 45 minutes in length, with no intermission and if you left, you would not be re-admitted.

Commit or else!

I didn’t hate it, but it was a challenging piece in a number of ways:

— It was really long

— It was very repetitive

— Much of it was performed in silence

— Much of it seemed to focus more on movement than pure dance

— It included black and white vintage film footage of buildings being dynamited to shards

I was very curious to read the New York Times’ review:

Made in 1984, it was her first dance to use spoken text and film. The program note describes it as a result of self-questioning, a search for a way forward. And on Sunday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, when it was performed in New York for the first time since 1987, that’s what it looked like: the work of a young artist who has hit an aesthetic wall and hasn’t yet discovered how to get past it…the overall impression of the work is less of emotional implosion than of expanding boredom. At the end, the women, seated in chairs, cross their legs and run their hands through their hair as part of a Mozart piano sonata plays…As drama, the dance cuts off empathy, but as these women fidget, you know exactly how they feel.

I’m glad I saw it, even if I didn’t love it. I was around the same as the choreographer in 1984 and, like her, had had some terrific early professional success. I remembered what that felt like.

I remember 1984.

I’ve only walked out of one play, as its themes were simply too painful for me personally. And I walked out of the terrifying film The Exorcist as I couldn’t take it.

Generally, I stick around. (Not a boring or poorly-done book. That takes up too much time!)

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One reason is that I know what it takes to create a work of art or literature or dance or theater — usually years of training and rehearsal and guts and time and money and ideas and financial backing. Even if the result is atrocious, and it can be, it’s also the result, in many cases, of tremendous effort.

I don’t need to love everything I read, hear, see or listen to as long as there are some useful or intriguing ideas within it. Nor does it have to be quick or short.

It just has to make me think.

How about you?

How do you respond to art or cultural works that make you uneasy, uncomfortable or bored?

20 more things that make me happy

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, nature on July 4, 2014 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Hearing a loon call — and it’s someone’s ringtone

Touring an Ontario heritage site hosted by a young ranger, D. Fife, whose mother is Ojibway and father is Scottish — classic Canada

Scoring a gorgeous teapot at auction

$31. Score!

$31. Score!

Paying a lot of tax on vacation purchases in Canada — knowing that it helps to pay for cradle-to-grave health care for everyone there and supports Canadian students’ $5,000/year college tuitions.

The scent of sun-warmed dried pine needles

The sun back-lighting a garden, iris glowing

Sitting very still in an Adirondack chair watching Lake Massawippi

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Hearing French spoken all around me, and on the radio, and speaking it myself

A bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, with mayo

Stocking up on Big Turks

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Floating alone in a swimming pool, motionless and silent

Eating butter tarts,  peameal bacon and smoked meat while home visiting Canada

Reading a terrific murder mystery set in the Eastern Townships, with a chapter that begins “‘Tabarnacle,’ whispered Beauvoir.” Quebec slang! Written by a former Canadian journalist living within a few miles of where I was reading her work

A very good professional massage

Huge squishy pillows covered in soft white cotton

Driving through Vermont in the rain listening to U2’s Joshua Tree

Awakening to birdsong

A pretty new cardigan in ballet-slipper pink at Ca Va De Soi, a knitwear firm with shops in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto — and also soon online

Feeling so well-loved by dear old friends who welcome us back into their homes, year after year

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A badly-needed 10-day vacation — then returning to multiple freelance assignments and teaching gigs

Bonus: Having two countries I’m legally able to belong to, and to work in: Canada, where I was born and raised and the U.S., where I have lived since 1988 and am lucky enough to have a “green card”. I get to celebrate my two countries in the same week each year —

Happy Canada Day! (July 1) and Happy 4th of July!

Two sets of fireworks!

 

 

 

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