It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.
None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.
A good long time to reflect.
And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.
I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.
It’s not Art or Literature.
It’s just journalism.
I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.
But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?
I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?
Did it help anyone?
I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.
But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.
The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!
We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.
We love finding and telling stories to strangers.
We see story ideas everywhere.
We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.
From my last group experience, attending and speaking March 8 in Fairfax, VA at the NSC 2020
By Caitlin Kelly
We haven’t yet received our badly-needed $1200 per person from the Federal government, nor even tried to apply for unemployment payments (which freelancers are entitled to) , nor pandemic payments of $600/week….all of which we could use!
A lot of outlets have cut back on their freelance budgets, so it’s easy to panic, but panic never paid the bills.
Work, thankfully, continues to show up.
This past week offered three fantastic windfalls — all of them totally unexpected — and for which, even more now, I am so grateful:
— A woman writer who follows me on Twitter booked me for a coaching session from across the country for this weekend.
— A doctor I helped a few weeks ago (months?), discussing his amazing Twitter story-telling and whether it’s book material, suddenly dropped some very real cash into my PayPal account.
— I posted a question in one of the private writers’ groups I belong to on Facebook, asking for peers’ advice on where to place an unusual personal essay. An editor saw it and commissioned it.
And, always, the usual searching for more work…
A few months ago, I began working with an intern, (now home from college in Brooklyn at her parents upstate), and she and I are still, slooooowly, plugging away on a potential book proposal. I keep kidding around on Twitter with a few agents and book editors, hoping to get it to them if/when we ever get back to a more thriving economy.
I applied April 8 for a Canada Council grant, asking for the maximum of $25,000 (Canadian) to research another stalled book proposal. Only 20 percent of applicants win one and it might not be the full amount and I won’t know til August….but at least I tried. It’s open to Canadian citizens, not only residents.
I’ve pitched a number of COVID-related ideas, but others have beaten me to it, or they failed to find favor.
My latest assignment — of all things! — is for Mechanical Engineering magazine, and required me to interview the nation’s top experts in their fields. PANIC! “You have a knees-quaking English major who has never studied physics or chemistry”, I wrote the editor, when he made the assignment.
But it went well and I learned a lot and the scientists were all fantastic to talk to — warm and down-to-earth. I ended up talking turkey hunting with one of them, a female legend who hunts on her Texas ranch on weekends. Of course! Turned out I had two very unlikely things in common with another scientist — we’d flown the minuscule domestic aircraft of Nicaragua and eaten at the same Indian restaurant in Montreal, across from the McGill campus.
It’s these moments of shared humanity that make all the learning implicit in journalism — even a very steep curve sometimes! — still so enjoyable.
I caught up by phone with a pal in California who I met more than 20 years ago when, having never met before, we shared a room at a Boston writing conference to save money. She’s now doing a podcast on education and invited me to talk to her about my last story for Mechanical Engineering (out in June) on STEM.
Having read a pal’s story in a magazine I get, I asked her for the favor of an introduction to her editor — which she very generously made and which elicited an immediate and enthusiastic reply to my email and resume. Writing LOIs (letters of introduction to potential clients) is often a total waste of time, and one I avoid for that reason. Hoping for work!
I wrote to two editors of the FT’s glossy magazine How To Spend It. No reply. Will chase further; same for their House & Home editor, who follows me on Twitter.
Advised a Georgia MD up in NYC volunteering at a local hospital, who I follow on Twitter, about gathering details if he hopes to write a book about this pandemic.
I’m always months and months behind on my own reading, so have used some downtime to reduce the piles (three of them!) of Financial Times, NYT magazine,Architectural Digest, Vogue and the now-defunct Photo District News.
I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.
Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.
But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.
There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:
— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.
— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.
— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!
The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez
— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!
— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.
Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez
— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.
— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.
I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!
— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.
photo: Jose R. Lopez
— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.
— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.
— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!
Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez
— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.
Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:
What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.
As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.
I can’t reveal the details for a few months, but for those of you interested in how big newspaper or magazine stories come to be…
I’ll be doing a fair bit of my reporting on-site, these days a luxury.
After months of editorial rejections, I found an outlet interested in the subject.
So it all starts with an editor saying yes to an assignment, agreeing to a length, fee and deadline, and the scope of the work.
A lot of my recent work has been frustratingly short — pieces of 300 or 500 or 1,300 words. Journalism — Dickensian! — usually pays by the word, so you can immediately see why a 3,500 word story is, in some ways, more valuable, even if it takes a lot longer to produce.
And today “longform” can be as short as 1,500 words, which barely scratches the surface of any complex topic.
To even begin setting up interviews with the right people — as you always have somewhat limited time — means visualizing the many pieces of the story:
Who are the primary characters? Secondary? Tertiary?
What powerful visual scenes can I offer readers to get into the story and keep following it to the end?
What about anecdotes?
Data and statistics?
Podcasts on the subject?
What else has been written about it?
How should it be illustrated visually — graphics? charts? maps? Photos? Illustrations?
Does it also need a video component?
Is there film, video and audio of the subject and its experts?
What about their tweets or YouTube videos or TED talks?
Books and white papers and academic studies to read?
Essential to the process is simply understanding the scope of the story….and sometimes that means finding a few generous insiders, often fellow journalists on the ground who are expert on the topic, to help orient you. Much as this is a very competitive business, I’ve been fortunate so far on this one to have gotten some extremely helpful insights from the beginning.
As you start to contact sources, especially experts, there’s a bit of an unspoken game happening as, when you speak to them, they’re taking your measure — are you smart? respectful? well-prepared? Are your questions incisive or banal?
I recently spoke to a major source who suggested I speak to X and Y, major players in the field. When I told them I already have an interview set up with them soon, I knew I had won some more of this source’s confidence in me — and they sent me a tremendous list of new contacts and background reading.
Every interview is in some way an audition for the next — if a source decides you have enough street cred, they’ll refer you on to well-placed others they know can be helpful as well. Or not! It’s a bit like walking out onto ice, knowing it can crack or continue to support you on your journey.
Especially now — in an era when the cynical scream Fake News! and yet every journalist I know lives in mortal fear of losing their job — being transparent about our methods and motivations is more important than ever,
When I speak to “civilians” — regular people who don’t have a PR firm or communications team, or who have never spoken to a journalist before — I’m careful to explain, before we start an interview, the rules of engagement:
I need to identify them fully.
I will quote their words unless before they speak we agree that those words are off the record.
They will not get to read my story ahead of publication but I will make sure to clarify anything I am not sure I understand.
So far I’ve done a few 60 to 90 minute phone interviews to better understand this story and am now setting up dozens of additional ones, some face to face whenever possible, some by Skype and phone. The worst is email, since it doesn’t create the spontaneity of conversation.
By the time I’m done, I expect to have spoken to dozens of people and read a few books on it; some of those people won’t be quoted or visible to the reader, but their ideas and insights have helped to guide me.
Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer
By Caitlin Kelly
By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.
Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.
Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.
My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.
I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.
My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.
Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.
Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas
As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.
And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.
I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.
In the past week — whew! — I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.
I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.
The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!
By Caitlin Kelly
So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.
Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.
I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.
As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.
So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.
I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.
How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?
I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.
The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!
Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!
Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.
Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.
Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!
The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.
Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”
Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.
Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.
Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.
“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”
This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.
You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.
Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.
I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.
Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.
They just expect to be paid on time.
I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.
I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.
I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.
I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.
As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.
No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!
Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!
In other recent freelance writing news…
— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”
— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.
— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.
— Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.
— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!
— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!
— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!
— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.
— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006. You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.
I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.
To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.
The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.
That’s a business deduction.
I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.
I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s
The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.
Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.
I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.
Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.
Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.
We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.
Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.
Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.
Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.
I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.
Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.
I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.
Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.
My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.
I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.
Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)
If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.
The least of it!
Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.
Without which, nothing happens.
Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)
Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.
Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.
Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.
Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.
It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.
Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.
In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.
I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!
There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!
Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!
They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.
They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.
Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.
I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.
My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.
But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.
Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.
When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.
When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.
When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.
Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.
Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.
I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.
You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.
No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!
Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)
Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.
It can be something we overheard or saw.
Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.
What makes something a “story”?
— it’s new
— it’s making a ton of money for someone
— it’s the first time this event has ever happened
— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)
— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it
It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:
Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”
With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”
She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.
My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.
Key to this piece? Serendipity!
I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.
In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.
The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?
The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.
It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.
I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!