Vying for fame — with those who share your name

By Caitlin Kelly

Those who aspire to fame — hell, visibility! — in their field need talent, hard work, education, connections, good luck, experience, opportunity.

They also need people to recognize and remember their name.

One reason movie stars change their names is to win an indelible place in the public imagination — would you rush as quickly to see a film by Allen Konigsberg (Woody Allen) or one starring Alphonso D’Abruzzo (Alan Alda)?

Your name is your brand.

Especially in an age of social media, when it might be read by (and re-tweeted to) thousands, if not millions of people.

For decades, very few girls or women, at least in my native Toronto and later in New York — and most importantly, in my work as a journalist — shared my first name. I’d never met another Caitlin Kelly.

Two highly-visible others share “my” name in the same elbows-out city — New York.

English: Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & Ne...
English: Bird’s eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873. This town ain’t big enough for all three of us! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And one of them is a writer for the New Yorker.

“Congrats! Saw your great piece” emails arrive  in my in-box. For her. (For those of you beyond the U.S, a staff job at the New Yorker is, for many writers, the pinnacle of the profession, the sort of spot many ambitious writers deeply envy.)

My loving friends think I’m talented and know I live in New York so, hey, it must be me!

But it’s not.

Then came the fawning, hand-wringing email from some fangirl who assumed I was the other CK, asking me for career advice.

This Caitlin Kelly is a designer of elegant, upscale swimwear, whose name I began seeing whenever a Google alert sent me to her work, not to mine. She’s also here in New York, much younger than I, as is the other CK.

She called me the other day and we finally learned a bit more about one another. I’d been curious, as her work is lovely.

She sounds like a hard-working talented woman. We — somewhat oddly for strangers sharing a name — spoke at length and fairly personally.

We haven’t met, yet, although it’s possible we will. There may be an interesting story to write about “my” doppelgangers: how often (if at all) are they confused with me? How does that feel for them?

I checked out a few of the 26 (!) other Caitlin Kelly’s in the New York area, ranging from a college librarian (who’s emailed me a few times over the years) to a VP at Chase Morgan.

Twenty-six of us?!

Time for a CK party, I think.

Do you have a name shared with someone (else) who’s well-known?

How has that played out for you?

How badly do you want it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here is a powerful essay by British pianist James Rhodes, from The Guardian, about the many sacrifices he’s made for his music:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six
hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a
brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something
that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental
hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of
gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d
envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising,
lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews,
isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches
of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house
slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure
(playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right
fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the
composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices,
my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most
crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect
recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of
self-forgiveness, be “good enough”.

I find this an interesting, and extremely rare, admission of what it’s like to achieve and sustain public excellence.

English: A post-concert photo of the main hall...
English: A post-concert photo of the main hall’s stage inside of Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We see and hear, and applaud, (or boo or yawn at), the final product of many talented hard-working people, but often have absolutely no idea what it took to get them there — onto the concert stage, into the corps de ballet, onto the bookstore shelf or into the kitchen of a fine restaurant.

I’m fascinated by process, always hungry to hear how others are doing it and what, if anything, they have had to give up along the way. By the time we see someone becoming famous and, possibly, well-paid for their talents, we’re really looking at an iceberg — seeing barely 10 percent of their story, the other 90 percent often being years, even decades, of study and practice and rejection and failure that led up to this moment.

The Passage of Time
The Passage of Time (Photo credit: ToniVC)

I think it’s worth reading these stories as a way of thinking about our own choices:

How much longer will I devote to this project?

What I never achieve my goal?

Are there smaller, more private, less lucrative successes that would also satisfy me?

If not, why not?

What am I willing to give up?

How much will I regret those losses?

I weary of the widespread fantasy that “everyone’s a writer.” They’re not!

It is damn hard to become very good at something.

Here’s a great recent post by a professional conductor talking about this, chosen for Freshly Pressed:

Recent research and a popular book have theorized that it takes 10,000 hours for a human to become proficient and considered an expert at something.  It seems so easy:  Put in the Time, Collect the Dime.  I think most adults can see some truth in this theory based on their own experiences.  Driving a car is a great example.  While we are learning, we are cognizant of every movement, every decision, every possibility.  After time, we become very natural at it.  It almost becomes a reflexive action.  (For example, when’s the last time you thought about—really concentrated on—operating the turn signal?)

What makes it interesting is that it could apply to anything, from knitting to playing the violin.  The implications for an art form are obvious and the research pointers are fairly sound.  However my question is: Is it enough to make good art?

It is even harder, depending on a wide variety of external circumstances — do you have kids? A big mortgage? Student debt? Poor health? — to make a lot of money doing something purely creative, versus working for The Man and taking home a steady paycheck.

I love this multi-media piece about jockeys in Nairobi — the only track for 3,300 miles. They want it badly!

At Ngong Racecourse in Nairobi, Kenya, the only track in a 3,300-mile swath of Africa between Egypt and Zimbabwe, the jockeys struggle to earn $20 a ride, even in the big races. For the country’s biggest race, the Kenya Derby, the winning horse’s owner may take home little more than $7,200. Grooms, who wake up at 4:30 six mornings a week to muck out stables and brush down horses, make less than $100 a month. Yet, the dwindling numbers of trainers, jockeys, owners and breeders in Kenya are deeply committed to keeping the sport alive.

I started working for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail, at 26, after applying for a staff job every year for eight years. I eventually wanted to come to New York and so, after a day’s work, also worked as a stringer (contacts I sought out) for Time, The Boston Globe and the Miami Herald. I needed to find American editors who liked my work and to up my game.

Knowing I planned to leave Toronto within a few years also meant not settling down and getting married and having kids, (not a dream of mine anyway.) I moved to New Hampshire in 1988, leaving family, friends, career and country, then moved to New York just in time for a horrible recession, with no job. I got one after six months, earning $5,000 less in March 1990 than I’d made in Montreal in September 1986 — in a much costlier place to live.

Every move we make is a choice that carries consequences and every one carries a cost — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, professional. Sometimes all of those at once!

That’s why they’re called sacrifices, and why it’s so much nicer to just avoid them. And the worst fear, perhaps, is that you make a ton of them and still don’t get what it was you really wanted.

So it helps to figure out what you really want — the fancy job title and shiny new car or a life with enough room in it to travel three months every year? A bunch of kids or the creative freedom to fail at new ideas and still pay your monthly bills? A loving spouse or the sort of work that moves you from one conflict spot to the next, in an NGO or aid work or journalism? (They are not all either/or, but they will enact sacrifices.)

No matter who you are or where you live or what you hope to achieve in life — non-materially — the fewer your financial obligations, the easier it is to focus on that.

Do you have a specific dream you’re trying to achieve?

What are you willing to do — to give up — to get there?

Writers aren’t circus bears!

Canada Reads 2013
Canada Reads 2013 (Photo credit: gorbould)

Here’s a thoughtful recent essay from Canada’s National Post:

There is a clause on page five of my book contract that states, “The Author must make herself available to the media to promote the work.”…Not only does literary life seem to require a new kind of written personal transparency, the obligations that follow publication seem to have become increasingly more invasive.

How is “available” defined when we can reveal our private lives in real time via a variety of different digital outlets? When accessing almost any author with immediate, unfiltered comment and criticism is a click away? How much does the media, and the public, want, need or even deserve?

As writers feel more and more pressure to be 24/7, real-time public figures, we need to consider those who are disclosure-averse, who prefer to hide away and let their work stand as they have constructed it.

Writing is a solitary act, while publishing is a shared one, and skill at being a likable public figure who gives great readings and interviews is in no way a quality of producing quality literature.

It’s certainly not news that the Internet is not exactly a bastion of thoughtful dialogue and critique — it’s a vile, abusive place that no amount of “haters gonna hate” can ease the blow of. The result of putting oneself “out there” is commonly getting badly beat up, shattering your confidence in yourself and your work…

Exposure can be a terrifying and exhausting process, the demand for the author to step well out into the fray constant…

Being good at self-exposure and promotion doesn’t make you a better writer, it makes you a more popular one.

This resonated deeply for me.

As you read this, I’m at an assisted-living facility about 10 minutes’ drive from my home, doing another public event for my retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I’m not being paid for it, which I sometimes am, (usually $50 to $250 for a small, local event.) A local indie bookseller will be there with a box of my books and a credit card machine. (If I sell them, they don’t count for royalties, i.e. lowering the initial advance payment with every sale, albeit a tiny fraction of the cover price the publisher actually pays the author.)

It’s showtime, folks!

This, my second book, came out April 2011 in hardcover, July 2012 in paperback, but  — like many authors — I’m still out there selling it to the public and press when possible. If it doesn’t keep selling, it will disappear from bookstores, go out of print and die. Staying silent and invisible seems unwise.

Before almost every event I have no idea, really, how many people will show up, or in what mood, or with what level of interest in me or my topic. Someone in the crowd might get nasty. I might fill the room — and not sell a single book. (My book discusses low-wage labor, and both times this has happened was after addressing library audiences in two very wealthy towns, Scarsdale, NY and Westport, CT.)

Frankly, it’s stressful.

The last event I did was in January at a local library on a bitterly cold night. I was suffering terrible bronchitis, my barking cough frequent and loud. To my delight, a friend came, as did a woman who had heard me months earlier, and she brought two friends. One man blurted “I love your book! I stayed up til 1:30 last night reading it.” Which was, of course, all lovely.

Then I asked one audience member, working retail, what she sells: “Clothing, to women your size.”

Holy shit. That hurt! I smiled my usual bland, friendly, I-didn’t-feel-a-thing smile. But her impertinent and bizarrely personal remark still hurts, weeks later.

Writers are hungry to be read, to communicate our ideas and passions, but we’re not schooled or trained — nor eager for, or desirous of, sustained public attention and unsolicited, often anonymous, commentary.

We do this public song-and-dance because we have to, because we’re proud of and love our books and want them to be read as widely as possible. But many writers are ambivalent about, even resentful of, the misleading and false sense of intimacy our public appearances create with audiences.

You don’t know us.

You just know what we wrote. 

When doing public and press events, no matter how stung or annoyed you feel, you have to react quickly and calmly, as I did on live radio with 2 million listeners on The Diane Rehm Show.

And I won’t rant here about the public, permanent and often anonymous “reviews” on amazon, some so vicious they’ve left me shaking: “Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy” wrote one.

Many writers are desperate to be published, and would kill for the chance to garner lots of media and/or public attention. For their work, yes, of course!

But you personally ? To have your looks, personality, clothing, diction, mannerisms and family discussed (and quite possibly dissed) by curious strangers?

Maybe not so much.

If you’re interested in writing-as-process, here’s a two-part interview I gave recently to fellow writer Nancy Christie, whose many questions were intelligent and thought-provoking.