Feelings — and what to do with them

By Caitlin Kelly

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A box full of comforts…

Having them, acknowledging having them, processing them, talking about them, reflecting on them.

Sharing them.

Brrrrrr!

Several bloggers who reveal their painful and difficult emotions, (without becoming maudlin), are Anne Theriault, a Toronto mother of one who has written eloquently about her struggles with depression and anxiety at The Belle Jar and Gabe Burkhardt, whose new blog has described his battles with PTSD.

Ashana M. also blogs lucidly about hers, as does CandidKay, a single mother in Chicago.

Here’s a gorgeous essay about coming to terms with yourself.

It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.

Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.

I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.

I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.

No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.

My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.

As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.

She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.

We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.

It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?

I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.

When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.

I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.

Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.

I wonder if I ever will.

My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.

But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.

At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”

The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.

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Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!

I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.

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 Jose

Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.

A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.

I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.

How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?

Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?

The most important thing school can teach you is…

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner
Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...
You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!
Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage
This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?

Why?

The freelance writers’ life, continued…

Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames
Vancouver Canucks vs Calgary Flames (Photo credit: iwona_kellie)

I’ve never done this before, but yesterday’s post has, happily, proven popular and provoked some terrific convo…

So here are some additional thoughts:

Stamina

You gotta have it, possibly more than almost any other quality. For four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, a sport I took up in my mid 30s, and had a two-time Olympian as my coach. He pushed me to my limits, and beyond, for which I’m forever grateful. Fencing a tournament means no matter how tired or sore or cut or bruised you are you keep on going. If you drink or drug or stay out late on school nights, you will simply be unable to compete effectively with the boring people like me who are lucid and well-rested enough to eat your lunch.

Freelancing usually means you work alone from home. It doesn’t mean you go all boho and sleep in until  2pm when you maybe make a call or two.

EQ rules

I can’t say this too often; emotional intelligence is the new black.

If you’re unwilling or unable to man up for difficult/scary/terrifying conversations — whether with an editor, your agent, a source, a PR gatekeeper — you will starve. I guarantee it. You must locate your cojones and use them whenever necessary. The challenge is knowing when to be a total bitch, (I was told I made one personal assistant cry. Puhleeze), and when to be a sweetie and a cajoler and a charmer. Because you will need to be all of these, quite possibly within the same hour!

Today I made a call that I’d been putting off for weeks, to my current agent, with whom some things have been sub-optimal. She also just buried her father, having lost her mother in May 2009. So I waited, and sent a condolence card, because no matter what other shit we’ve been through, she’s a human being and losing your parents is sad and painful.

But I still pressed hard on the many issues that we have to get a handle on right away. You gotta figure out (it’s not easy) how to be tough enough to consistently look out for your interests professionally — and how to be kind, but not a doormat people take advantage of all the time.

If you’re too scared of rejection to make the call or take the meeting or send the email, you will not make a living in this game.  Handling conflict, disappointment, deceit and sudden turns of fortune are all part of this lifestyle (as they are in any job!)

Know what’s happening in this industry, today

I learned a lot from a conversation with my agent this afternoon. It wasn’t a lot of fabulous news, but I needed to hear it and I need to know it in order to sell this book and my next one and, I hope, the one(s) after that. Read industry blogs, newsletters, journals, books, magazines. Go to conferences and pay attention (or buy the CDs or podcasts.)

What did I learn? Ugh….the book industry is totally screwed in new and fresh ways. Paperbacks are not selling. Hardcovers are barely beating them. Because e-books rule.

Make friends in your industry and keep them for decades

Do not make enemies. Once you’ve found a wise and helpful pal, be good to them. Remember their birthday and anniversary and know when they’re celebrating or mourning and send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive — hello, that’s a deductible business expense!

If you’re young, get to know some older veterans and vice versa

The very first thing I did, when I was 19 and starting out as a freelancer, (I had a column in a national newspaper before I left college), was volunteer to help put out a book of interviews with some of Canada’s most established journalists.  I wanted to hear their wisdom, but also, selfishly, wanted to get my name out there, early, as someone passionate about the biz and willing to show up and be useful.

Barely two weeks ago, I interviewed a woman for my financial blog whose husband remembered me from that gig.

Do not be a suck or a user or a sycophant.

But I’ve seen time and again that forging cross-generational alliances is often a very good thing for both people involved. I got a young friend (30, maybe) a fantastic job in Ottawa a year ago while he was still living in Vancouver — because the hiring manager who needed someone smart, stat, took over my apartment in Montreal in 1988 and reconnected with me on LinkedIn. (See above.)

I got my young journo a gig because he’s classy, smart and presents well; the other day, completely desperate on deadline for a source I called him. He came through for me. Yay!

Keep your nose clean

Do not lie, steal ideas, cut corners, plagiarize or “forget” that you heard that great book idea from someone you met last week at a conference. It’s a small world and we have elephantine memories. Someone once tried to spread a lie that I’d been canned from a job. A journalist visiting India from Canada told a local stringer — ie. young, powerless, unconnected — that lie. She, actually being a pal of mine, defended me and told him he was a nasty asshole.

Like that.

Glad this has been helpful….feel free to ask any questions you like!

From tip to print: how I scored my Google exclusive for The New York Times

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an era of 24/7 media coverage, it’s not easy to get a scoop. But it’s far from impossible.

I did it with my Google story that ran in The New York Times four days ago. It was the paper’s 5th. most emailed and 5th. most viewed story for many hours.

Forbes.com picked it up and got 1,000 more views within hours.

So how did I get this story as mine alone — and how can you, an equally ambitious writer, do something similar?

It started, randomly, when I attended an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat in July 2011, a birthday gift from my Buddhist husband, which I wrote about for Marie Claire magazine.

One of the visiting teachers there was an extraordinary woman who I saw at once might be both a kindred spirit — albeit 20 years my senior — and a terrific magazine story in her own right. I asked for a private meeting with her, which was the one time we were allowed to speak.

She told me she’d been working with Google to help engineers develop their emotional intelligence. Boom! That’s a story.

I stayed in touch with her over the fall when she mentioned Meng, (the subject of my Times piece and a Google engineer), was writing a book and was someone well worth media attention. Story value confirmed.

I then reached out to his publisher and to Meng himself, letting him know that I knew personally two people he admires and has worked with. Done. The story was mine, he said.

Not so fast. Months of negotiation ensued between me, his publisher, the book publicist and the Times. Months.

I also faced major surgery and recovered enough just in time to fly to Mountain View to report the story with enough time to write and and edit it.

Google isn’t known for being a chatty sort of place, so getting access to half a dozen employees and two days on campus required some arm-twisting as well. I spent two intense days on-site, conducted more interviews by phone, wrote it and went through at least six revisions as the story passed through various editorial hands and questions.

Here are some things I did that could help  you snag and lock down a great story of your own:

Take a risk!

I didn’t even want to attend the Buddhist retreat for many reasons and went into it very reluctantly. But I went and learned a lot and met some truly amazing new people there.

Put yourself out there

I was nervous asking for a private meeting with this woman. What if she didn’t say yes? What if she didn’t like me or my ideas? You don’t know until you try.

What is the story? Can you sum up in one tight sentence?

An experienced reporter sniffs a great story right away. Even if you’re on staff, you’ll have to persuade your editor to let you write it. If you’re freelance, as I am, you’re asking for a big space and the budget to send you far away to get the goods. You’ve got to pitch it persuasively.

Access

Without it, you can’t get a scoop.

Passion for your idea

If you’re not super-psyched to do the piece, how can you persuade your editor?

A clear understanding who you need to interview and what you’ll ask them

You may have very little time in which to get your reporting done.

Persistence and tenacity

It took many months of calls and emails to get this story nailed down. I have more than 100 emails in one folder alone from my contact at Meng’s book publisher.

A terrific editor

You need someone to green-light your idea and make sure it gets the art, photos and play it deserves as it competes for space with all the other stories on that site/newspaper/magazine.

A clear idea of the scope of the story

How many words will it really need to be well-told? Do you have to travel? How cheaply can you do that? How are the key players in this narrative and will each of them speak to you? How much time will all that require — and do you have it or can you get it?

Self-confidence

I don’t write about tech. I don’t cover Google. I’d never written a story quite like this one. But I understand, and deeply value, mindfulness and meditation. That was enough to launch me. I’d figure the rest out as I went.

And I did!

Buck Up, Fresh Grads — The Party's Over: Eight Lessons That Might Help

NEWTON - MAY 22:  Family members take photos o...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

You already knew that, but this essay in The Financial Post, a Canadian newspaper, by Rick Spence, has some words of wisdom:

If I were asked to deliver a convocation speech, here’s what I would say based on my experience chronicling 25 years of entrepreneurship:

Your diploma is a passport to nothing

From now on get by on what you can do, not what they say you know. While you’ve been cutting classes or cribbing for exams, other people were in the trenches getting kicked in the teeth. They’ve learned all about getting their foot in the door, pitching ideas, asking for the sale and rebounding from setbacks. You have a lot of catching up to do.

You are a free agent

You are a small cog emerging from a big bureaucratic machine. Most of you will soon exchange your student number for an employee ID badge. But you don’t have to be a cog. Think of yourself as a free agent, choosing where and how you work. A job is not your life, just a contract. Many new opportunities will present themselves. Some will be dressed as job offers; others disguise themselves as business opportunities, bad bosses, new technologies or career roadblocks. To stick with one job or one employer is to settle for a limited experience when other people are moving from challenge to challenge, building their skills and networks.

The biggest challenge — especially if you carry crippling student debt — is not frantically looking for a job, any job, but trying to figure out who you are, what you’re best at, and finding a fit between your IQ, education and EQ, your emotional intelligence.

And, at some point, ideally finding a place where you can thrive, not just sit in a cube and wait ’til Friday.

I got my first full-time job only two years after I graduated (University of Toronto, English major.)

I didn’t need one, because my freelance business was so strong (Lesson One: You have skills you can sell, on your own, into the marketplace. Once you realize this, you will never feel the same fear of unemployment again. If your skills are too weak to be of value to others in this fashion, strengthen them as quickly as you can. If you’re too scared to approach [possibly critical or rejecting] strangers, get over it. It’s one of the most crucial survival skills.)

But I thought I’d better get serious, aim higher (i.e work in an office for someone else; Lesson Two, not the best choice for some of us.) I was hired by The Canadian Press, the national wire service that’s the equivalent of the Associated Press.

Misery! (Instructive, though.) I worked the late shift so would pass my live-in boyfriend on the stairs to our apartment as he arrived home from work and I left. (Not a good sign.) Then I’d collect news from across the country and re-distribute it.

Sundays nights got so bad I would cry before I went in because that was the night every week I had to write a round-up story called Fatalities — Fats for short — about everyone who had died or been killed in newsworthy fashion over the weekend. The gorier and grislier the death, the better!

I worked with a robot named Judy (as will you, at some point. Maybe not named Judy, but someone whose values, or lack of same, horrify you. Lesson Three; they’re everywhere.) One night I asked if this parade of death bothered her. “No, it’s just numbers,” she chirped.

I passed probation, but my bosses and I gratefully agreed that this sort of work really wasn’t a great fit for me. (Lesson Four: Just because you are competent at something does not mean you enjoy it or will thrive in this niche. Pay bills as long as you must, but get out before you die.)

Thank God I won a fellowship that month and went to France instead. A few years after that I managed to get a Big TV Job writing national nightly news and did that for a summer. At the end, I asked the boss if he’d give me a reference.

“No,” he said. “You were terrible.”(And you thought Canadians were nice and polite.)

Lesson Five: Just because you were all-American or had a stellar GPA or perfect SAT, a star on campus or in grad school or some other job(s) doesn’t mean squat in the “real world.” Whatever your current boss thinks is really important is really important.

I wasn’t past 25 then, but better to learn young when you are dreadfully ill-suited to jobs that, on paper, look really great and may even pay a lot. How can you not want any job? How can you not cling to it, as if it were (even if it is) a life raft?

Lesson Six: You must find faith in yourself. The market isn’t your BFF.

Today’s grads will have to take every ounce of “self-esteem” and shove them somewhere dark and private. Employers, especially in this economy, could not care less if you are happy or want a better title or more responsibilities.

They’re too busy being hounded by people like me, with decades of experience ahead of you.

From a story in Bloomberg Businessweek:

Ten months after graduating from Ohio State University with a civil-engineering degree and three internships, Matt Grant finally has a job — as a banquet waiter at a Clarion Inn near Akron, Ohio.

“It’s discouraging right now,” said the 24-year-old, who sent out more than 100 applications for engineering positions. “It’s getting closer to the Class of 2010, their graduation date. I’m starting to worry more.”

Schools from Grant’s alma mater to Harvard University will soon begin sending a wave of more than 1.6 million men and women with bachelor’s degrees into a labor market with a 9.9 percent jobless rate, according to the Education and Labor departments. While the economy is improving, unemployment is near a 26-year high, rising last month from 9.7 percent in January-March as more Americans entered the workforce.

Lesson Seven: Be savvy, strategic, kind, ethical, flexible, professional — and willing to do anything legal.

Lesson Eight: Never, ever expect the words you may well have grown up hearing as a constant, comforting refrain: “Good job!”  Your boss didn’t.