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.

 

IMG_6928

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 hell with excellence

IMG_6443

Worrying doesn’t get you there…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!

I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!

I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.

But the rest of my life?

Feh!

Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.

 

But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!

 

It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.

For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.

And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.

But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.

There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value —  people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.

So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.

We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.

Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.

So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.

 

It’s leisure!

 

It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.

This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!

I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.

 

So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.

 

I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.

 

The three A’s that matter most

By Caitlin Kelly

You might argue that three C’s matter more: compassion, conscience, commitment.

I’m going with agency, autonomy and authority.

As a writer — and author of two books — I love that the word authority starts with the word author. You have to stand up intellectually and be counted. It’s risky, for sure. But that’s where authority comes from, actually knowing your stuff, not just performing it on social media, preening. Maybe you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours theory — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

 

 

IMG_6572

 

I’ve been writing for decades, and each story, probably, from start to finish, might take 20 hours (at most, maybe 10 at best, for reporting/interviewing/writing/revising.)

So that means producing 1,000 stories before I could legitimately say, yeah, I’m excellent at this — which by now I surely have.

But here’s an interesting story that says — nope, wrong!

I recently went down a three-hour rabbit hole — three videos, about an hour each, of British writer, actor, poet Michaela Coel, who created the hit new HBO series “I May Destroy You” based quite a bit on her own life as an emerging artist and her own experience of being drugged at a bar then raped.

What I found most interesting about her comments in all three, one of which is the McTaggart Lecture, delivered in 2018 to the great and the good of the British TV industry, was how essential it’s been for her to insist on her own sense of agency and autonomy as she has created.

Her lecture is powerful and honest and makes clear that learning how to navigate the arcane and byzantine world of profitably selling your ideas and retaining some control over them is damn hard, and no one really teaches you.

The word agency has multiple definitions; here are five.

It’s fascinating that you hire an agent/agency to represent you in many endeavors, certainly creative — music, film, writing,  art — and in so doing must also surrender your own sense of agency to them, always relying on trust and knowing they’ll claim 10 to 15 to 20 percent of your earnings for the privilege. Which is why I’m loving the three season French TV series “Call My Agent” (10 percent in French), as it lays bare the hustle and drama and chaos behind the scenes of a Parisian talent agency.

Like Michaela Coel, who’s quite adamant about the need for transparency in an industry premised on little of it, I want to see the process, not only the shiny finished object.

Old dreams, new dreams

IMG_4515

Where to? Tokyo has long been on my list…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.

If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!

But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.

Then what?

My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.

I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.

 

IMG_1543

We only get so much time….

 

The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.

I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.

New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.

Will any of these happen? Who knows?

It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.

It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.

 

Nap time!

 

Home again

thumbnail-5

Much catching up to do!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I hadn’t been gone that long — 23 days — since my six-week vacation in Europe in the summer of 2017, a big splurge worth every penny.

This trip to Canada involved stops in six cities and towns, and eight places I laid my head at night. Jose and I drove up to Ontario from Tarrytown and worked together on a story for the first time, he taking photos and I doing many interviews.

We were lucky and grateful to stay with friends in four of these, saving money on food and lodging and enjoying renewing our friendships. I only get back to Toronto maybe once a year.

Jose drove home and back to work, then I had a solo week in Toronto, meeting with some very high level sources, so was a bit nervous but it went well. The final four days were time to relax and enjoy the city: St. Lawrence Market, a great Italian restaurant called Terroni and three new younger women friends I met at Fireside.

On top of that, I was dealing with a topical treatment for a skin cancer on my right shin, gout (!) and joint pain from the medication I have to take to reduce the risk of another breast cancer. And 80-degree heat.

But I soldiered on.

 

thumbnail-7

A view of Niagara Falls as our bus headed south to the train

 

The pain in my leg was excruciating — so this week, at home I finally saw the doctor to find my leg was infected, hence terrible pain. Now on antibiotics.

Home, grateful for silence and my daily and weekly routines.

I’ve lived in this one-bedroom apartment half my life now, but I am always glad to return to it.

 

thumbnail-6

Somewhere in upstate New York — it’s a 13-hour journey from Toronto, with two of them spent at the U.S. border — but some of it is gorgeous!

 

Home nurtures me for the next adventure!

Ten tips for freelancers

IMG_3853

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.

 

 

IMG_20150106_134932581_HDR

 

 

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!

 

 

 

IMG_5301

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.

 

 

 

IMG_3977

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.

Two new stories of American labor

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Labor Day!

As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.

Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.

It’s crazy.

 

malled cover LOW

 

I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.

Then, no severance!

Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.

Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.

So, hey — try these!

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.

I can’t wait to read it.

Just one of its many rave reviews…


“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week

Here’s an earlier book on the same topic, from 2014.

And a new documentary,  American Factory, takes a close look at one American factory taken over by the Chinese.

From The New York Times’ review:

In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.

The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)

 

Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!

Row, row, row your boat

IMG_2988

Can’t wait to sit fireside once more….

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We leave this weekend for a much-awaited trip back to Ontario, where we’ll see and stay with five different friends — one, I literally haven’t seen since ninth grade — in two cities and three towns. I won’t be back home in New York until late September.

We’re grateful and fortunate to have so many close friends who happily welcome us, sometimes many times, to stay in their homes, sometimes for as long as a week, to share morning coffees and late-evening conversations, to catch up in depth and detail on one another’s lives in a way that no social media chitchat can ever provide.

We’re also eager for respite.

When Jose took the buyout from The New York Times in March 2015, an opportunity we couldn’t afford to pass up at the time, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew, more than he did, that in a chaotic and youth-obsessed industry like journalism, we probably would never have another staff job in it, or likely any other, and get stuck with costly health insurance.

Our applications — even with our industry’s top awards — go unanswered.

So we’re both full-time freelance, hustling hard to make our financial commitments — $20,000 a year just for health insurance is a huge burden, and not an item we can afford to cheap out on.

Much as we enjoy the relative freedom this life offers us, being able to go away when and where we can afford to, it’s also a real scramble. Clients come and go and must be replaced quickly to keep income incoming.

In our leaky little boat, we row hard every day, bailing when necessary.

I left home at 19, never with any option of returning when times got tough. My parents don’t offer help, financial or emotional, and Jose’s parents died decades ago.  I have three half-siblings and know none of them well; I haven’t even met one. His two sisters have their own lives and live far away from us.

I watch, in awe, when a younger friend is handed $50,000 by her parents…because they can, and another pays half a million cash for her apartment, also a family gift. (I was very lucky, in my mid-20s, to inherit some money from my late maternal grandmother.)

Today, we have no one anywhere to rely on but ourselves: our wits, our health and our skills.

We’re attending and speaking at an annual and unusual conference held at a camp in northern Ontario, called Fireside. The creation of two young Ontario lawyers, it attracts participants from around the world — no badges or lanyards, no wi-fi and sleeping in unheated cabins when it’s about 40 degrees F at night.

It’s a great adventure.

 

IMG_2959

The dining hall at Fireside

We’re OK, generally.

But the past year has worn me out.

This summer cost us an anticipated $1,050 from two of my projects that blew up due to others’ tantrums and a tiny skin cancer on my leg (treatable, I’ll be fine!) had me watching anxiously for months before biopsy, diagnosis and treatment, paying (of course) additional out-of-insurance-network costs for a dermatologist I like and trust.

So this chance to wake up among pals in a spacious, multi-roomed house — not our overused one-bedroom work/office/apartment — and have food prepared for us by people who love us, to rest, to not hustle every day, even for a bit, is a great luxury and one we are deeply thankful for.

 

We all need to be cared for at times.

 

Reporting a big story — a how-to

IMG_20150909_131638156
The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

 

IMG_20150213_163711842_HDR
The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

 

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.

 

Then…oh yeah, writing!

 

Learning to say no

IMG_2082

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.