Kim Wall’s murder: “The Investigation” on HBO

By Caitlin Kelly

In the summer of 2017, Kim Wall, an adventurous, ambitious 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist made a last-minute phone call to Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor in Copenhagen. She wanted to ride in his home-made submarine, a potential story.

It’s the sort of thing many freelancers do all the time, without deep concern about the risks, as the rewards are obvious.

It would be her last.

He killed her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

Now, HBO Europe has released a six-part series about the hunt for her killer, The Investigation, on in the U.S.

The show never once names him, referring to him only as “the accused.”

If you, as I do, loved the Danish show Borgen, this brings back two very familiar faces — Pilou Asbek as the prosecutor (who played the spin doctor in Borgen) and Soren Malling as the chief of Copenhagen police (the TV director in Borgen.)

We never see or hear much about Kim herself except through the characters who play her parents, who were as committed to her independence and freelance life as she was. It’s never an easy life, and one many parents find too worrisome and penurious, so this is an interesting piece of the story.

The show moves slowly, with many setbacks and confusion and a lot of frustration — just as much detective work actually unfolds in real life. Madsen was not tried and convicted until April 2018.

I found the show emotionally hard to watch — (I didn’t know Kim)– as it could easily have been me or many other freelancers. Our lives are full of such crazy adventures — many quite risky — we undertake in order to find and tell compelling stories.

And we go alone.

At 25, for a story about the many challenges of trucking goods across the EU, I climbed into an 18-wheeler French truck, met its driver, Pierre Boue, and set off from Perpignan to Istanbul (eight days.) We had never met or spoken. We were both single and he was 35. We. slept on tiny bunks in the truck cab, with no privacy possible. There was no Internet then or cell phones.

It proved one of the best weeks of my life and my career.

But it looked risky as hell.

Here’s a story about it from Vox:

The 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall is one of the most haunting true crime cases in recent memory. If you worked in New York media four years ago, there was a high chance you knew someone who had worked with Wall. She was a vibrant, award-winning freelancer who reported complex investigations all over the world, often fearlessly navigating unfamiliar regions.

That facet of her life served to heighten the irony around her death: Two days before she was about to move across the world to begin yet another adventure, she arranged a last-minute interview in Copenhagen with a man who should have been an easy subject: Peter Madsen, a high-powered tech guru and inventor. Madsen was part of Wall’s home region. He was a renowned public figure; she was a renowned, well-connected journalist. It should have been her safest assignment yet.

This, from IndieWire:

Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.

Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.

It’s not an easy show to watch, obviously, and some of the details are very grim.

But what made it most compelling to me was the police’s shared dogged determination to solve this crime and the incredible teamwork it took — including months of diving to find her and her belongings.

Have you watched it?

What did you think?

The writer’s life, lately

Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York

By Caitlin Kelly

This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.

I thought I had an agent!

I was wrong!

That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”

Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.

For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!

So the search continues.

The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.

But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.

Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.

Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.

I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)

I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.

But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?

Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.

This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.

I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.

I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.

My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.

I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.

And this payment arrived!

Yay!

The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.

So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.

The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.

And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.

But none of that matters to me.

Most of us write, not for fame or fortune but for

Audience

My writing life…the latest

By Caitlin Kelly

Last year was really rough.

This year, for reasons I can’t discern, things have been much better and much busier. For which I am so grateful!

In the past few weeks:

— I’ve pitched three editors at The New York Times (science, At Home, Well) and sold two ideas to them.

Here’s one, about listening to foreign radio.

— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.

— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.

— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.

— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!

— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.

— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!

— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.

— Enjoyed an unusual two-hour phone chat with one of my editors, who’s been buying a lot of my work for The Conversationalist. Only after two hours did we actually discuss work!

— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.

— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.

— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.

— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.

I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.

I miss seeing other people face to face!

But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.

Here’s another writer’s description of her writing life — she lives alone in Brooklyn with her cat and does a lot of science writing.

Our writing lives are all, in some ways quite different and in many ways, very similar.

What do you want them to see?

By Caitlin Kelly

So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.

I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.

My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!

I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.

I’m in!

Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.

But my image needs to be:

not stuffy

not boring

friendly and approachable but also professional

When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!

So why does this one work?

— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.

— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.

— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.

— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.

— a lovely background.

— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.

— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.

Taking my photo is never that easy!

I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.

It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!

Caitlin Kelly headshots, October 2020

Why work freelance?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful reminder that some jobs scar us for years, written by an HR expert I really admire and follow on Twitter, Katrina Kibben:

Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.

I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.

I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.

I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.

One of the questions — why freelance?

What are its advantages?

My first reply?

Intellectual freedom!

I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.

I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).

I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.

I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.

I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.

The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.

As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!

So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.

Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.

But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.

I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)

The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!

I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.

In the past year, I’ve written on:

— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)

— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)

— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)

— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)

All of these are on my website.

Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)

It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)

It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.

But we enjoy it.

The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.

 

The writing life, of late

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My big story, January 2020 — three months’ reporting, 30 sources.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to Twitter, of all things, my recent writing work has been plentiful, interesting and decently-paid.

I have no explanation for it, certainly in a year of enormous job loss for so many, but this year is proving far better than 2019 for me in steady work income.

I make my living writing journalism, content marketing and coaching other writers ($250/hour) through phone, Skype or, in happier times, face to face in New York City.

Recent work has included producing a series of blog posts, like this one, for the Lustgarten Foundation, the world’s largest devoted to fighting pancreatic cancer, after its communications officer found me on Twitter and asked if I’d like to do some writing for them.

Another Twitter pal, based in London, recommended me to his editor in (!) Helsinki, which produced this piece, a profile of a corporate executive at a Finnish energy company. I know, sounds snoozy! But she was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the project.

Chasing money is an annoying part of my work, and that’s sucked up a lot of energy as well, with late payments from several sources — some $5,000 worth. No one wants to be a nag or a pest, but the bills don’t wait! Before the crash of 2008, I had a $20,000 line of credit with my bank and that made late payments less stressful — the bank killed it, with no warning or explanation, that year. Managing cash flow is every freelancer’s greatest challenge, since the economy remains tediously predicated on a 1950s model of payment showing up in our bank accounts on a regular, predictable and consistent schedule.

We wish!

I keep trying to add more energy to my book proposal, but reporting is only best done face to face — and that now feels largely impossible. Very frustrating. It’s an idea focused on New York City, so I need to start making calls to see if anyone will even meet with me now.

Awaiting news of a grant application for $11,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts for another book project.

Still reaching out to new-to-me editors I’d like to write for at a few sections of The New York Times, Domino magazine (print) and the Weekend FT.

Also emailed a new content marketing opp — a magazine published for a major car manufacturer — and spoke by phone for 45 minutes with another potential client.

So much of a writer’s work, working for income, is seeking, finding and vetting new would-be collaborators. Do you like them? Are they ethical? Do they pay well? Do they pay quickly? Does the content actually interest me enough to commit to doing it well?

It’s a highly competitive business, but you have to know your value and always be your own best advocate.

I had a long conversation recently with a 26-year old freelance writer who’s fed up, as we all are now, with common (appalling) pay rates of $400 for a reported story — which would easily have paid $1,000 or more a few years ago.

 

Freelance journalism, as she said to me and I’ve said to many, has become an expensive hobby.

 

Which is ironic and terrible, since we need smart, deep analysis now more than ever — and it’s increasingly concentrated in the well-paid hands of a few staff writers. This is not good.

And this looks like it’s not going to change anytime soon.

I easily made two to three times my income in the 90s producing only journalism, as pay rates were much higher and demand as well. Some people, with specialized skills or very strong editorial relationships, are still making very good money, but if you want a glamorous, high profile clip from Conde Nast or Hearst the contract will be brutally demanding of all rights and expose you to total liability.

No thanks!

Content marketing requires the same skills — interviewing, research, reporting, writing, revising. But the end user is different, and the tone can reflect that and, some won’t carry my byline, like the Lustgarten posts.

As long as the pay is good and quick, management smart and the work interesting, that’s a lot!

 

My writer’s life — mid-pandemic

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

https://wordpress.com/post/broadsideblog.wordpress.com/52759

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

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.

 

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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!

 

 

David Dennis

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.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

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.

 

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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.

 

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

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!

 


 

Family Doctor Wanted Sign

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.

Ten tips for freelancers

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At its best, time for a long lunch out! This is L’Express in Montreal

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Some call it — ugh! — the “gig economy” as if we were all hep-cats pounding some drum-set in the basement.

Freelance life, if it’s your sole income, really means self-employment, running a small business. While freelance sounds hip and cool and breezy — being a small business owner sounds, and is, much more serious.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, but have done it for long stretches before that.

Some tips:

 

Choose your clients very carefully

It’s tempting, especially when you’re starting out, to lunge at every opportunity. It’s not a good habit to develop. People can smell desperation and will, sadly, take advantage of it with low rates, slow payment, awful contracts and abusive behavior. Do your due diligence whenever possible so you can avoid these toxic monsters.

 

 

Cultivate a wide, deep network of peers, fellow professionals whose work, work ethic and character you know well.

 

See point one! Without a network, how would you know? With a network, you will be more able to pick and choose which opportunities are best for you and your skills. Once you have a posse, you can safely refer work to them when you’re swamped, and vice versa.

 

 

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Keep at least three months of basic living expenses in the bank or have access to a line of credit.

Very few clients pay quickly. The best will pay 50 percent up front, or one-third, but this varies by industry. Late payments are a huge source of stress.

 

Know your legal rights! Read every contract carefully and amend them whenever possible. In New York State, the law protects freelancers who get stiffed.

 

Some contracts have become virtually unmanageable. Worst case? Walk away.

 

Negotiate. Every time.

 

No one is ever going to just hand you bags ‘o cash. Ask for more money, more time, a larger travel budget, social media boosts, etc.

 

Keep growing and building your skills.

 

Your competitors are!

Attend conferences, take classes and workshops and get some individual coaching. Listen to podcasts and Ted talks and YouTube. Read books. Take a college or university night class. The wider and stronger your skills, the more options you have to earn multiple revenue streams.

Yes, I coach!

 

 

 

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Get out into nature. Slow down. Rest.

Take time off!

 

Without rest, recharge and respite, burnout is inevitable. For all the putative freedom — no commute! work in a T-shirt! — this is often a highly stressful way to earn a living. Some people with “real” jobs, some of whom have paid vacations and paid holidays and paid sick days, get time off.

Freelance? The only people who know when it’s time to take a break is us.

 

Set clear boundaries between work and rest. Keep them!

 

I don’t work nights or weekends. If I do, I take time off in recompense. I keep a fairly standard work schedule, 10:00 a.m. to 5pm. I don’t like early mornings so will only schedule something before 10:00 a.m. if it’s really urgent — like working with someone in Europe (five to six hours ahead of me in New York.)

Get out of your lane!

 

I hate this new admonition — stay in your lane! All it does is ensure we don’t listen to, look at and engage with others who are different from us, in politics, interests and vocation. If all you ever do is talk to other writers or fellow freelancers, you’ll quickly die of boredom! Go to museums and parties and gallery openings and concerts and stuff your kids are into (Fortnite!) to keep your brain open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

 

 

 

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Remember in your heart of hearts that your skills and work bring value

 

Freelancing can be really lonely and really isolating. If you work alone at home for years, and have no kids or pets and your partner or spouse works out of the home, it’s very easy to start to feel feral and ignored. Make an “attaboy” file of every bit of praise and kindness so on days when everything gets rejected you recall why you’re good at this stuff and things will improve.

Here’s a recent interview with an American freelance writer, a woman of color.