I know, for some of you — parents, caregivers, those on super-tight budgets, in school — that’s not easy to do.
2018 did not begin well for me — the first time in many years I earned no income at all from my freelance work, for two months.
And our fixed monthly living costs, even without children or debt, are more than $5,000 a month, so no income from my side meant digging into our savings. (Which we are lucky to have!)
Burned out, I recently took a two-week break, and that cost us even more lost income and savings, in hotel/gas/meals, for 2 weeks back in Ontario, where I grew up and have many friends. (A last-minute change of plans meant our free dog-sitting housing fell through.)
The “freedom” of freelance work also means that every minute we’re not working, we lose income. No paid vacation days for us!
But oh, I needed some time off, and so did my weary full-time freelance husband Jose, a photo editor.
We didn’t do very much: napped, read magazines and books, had some very good meals, enjoyed long evenings with old friends, took photos, hit some golf balls at the driving range. Visited with my Dad, who lives alone and who turns 89 in June.
I was burned out and deeply frustrated by endless rejections and some nasty encounters. Fed up!
I came home renewed, and have been pitching up a storm of fresh ideas and projects, trying for some new and much more ambitious targets. I’ve also been asking others for more help achieving some of my goals than I used to — doing everything alone is exhausting and demoralizing. (It’s really interesting to see who follows through, generously, and who — for all their very public social media all about how they believe deeply in mentorship — won’t lift a finger.)
In a country, (the U.S., where I live) and state (New York) where costs are so high and many people work insane hours, it’s counter-cultural to even admit to wanting a break, let alone taking one.
Not a glamorous brag-worthy Insta-perfect exotic and foreign vacation.
No poolside fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.
There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.
…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.
Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.
And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.
A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.
It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.
Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).
Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.
Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.
But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.
In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.
Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.
But what defines success?
an enormous salary
lots of money in the bank
having and wielding power
owning your home
a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)
surviving tours in the military
having a healthy/happy child(ren)
a happy relationship with your spouse/partner
achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record
regaining (or losing) weight
acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work
helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts
If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.
Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.
But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.
Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed
If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.
How do you measure and define success in your life?
The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.
I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…
You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.
But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:
lack of self-confidence
death of a loved one
lack of education
lack of skills
lack of social capital
the larger economy
Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.
I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.
They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!
It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.
As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — we react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.
But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.
So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.
In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.
Talk to a person of color.
Talk to a woman of color.
Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.
Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.
Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.
We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…
We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.
We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless
When they’re not.
Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.
You want(ed): a job, a friendship, a sweetie, a fellowship, a grant, a book or film or music deal.
When you or your idea face (repeated) rejection, it can feel annihilating.
I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, who wrote television shows and directed films and series and wrote and shot magazine articles. I saw, firsthand, what it’s like — emotionally, intellectually and financially — to put in a lot of hard work and hope only to discover that your ideas won’t receive funding.
Rejection is a powerful sorting process, quickly winnowing out those who really want it — and may still not get it! — from those who don’t. Maybe they’re ambivalent or don’t work hard or missed the deadline, again.
When you “fail”, (which to me is only temporary; if chronic, that’s not good), what’s your back-up plan?
Aircraft manufacturers plan for failure, creating planes that can still fly and land safely if an engine malfunctions.
Football coaches have a playbook, and everyone, everyone, needs a Plan B, C and D.
If we’re not thinking ahead to the next step, and the one after that, defeat can feel permanent.
I spent the past six weeks working on a book proposal.
Thanks to referrals from generous colleagues, I found top New York agents who replied to my email within hours. I worked with one for several weeks, but we quickly saw — to our mutual regret — this wasn’t a project he felt invested in, and I did. With the best humor and grace we could each muster, we parted ways.
The next agent replied to my email within half an hour — with tart, tough analysis of my idea’s weaknesses (yes, plural) and the intense competition it would face.
To say that — in British terms — these two men were chalk and cheese, is an understatement. Whew. One was lovely, kind and gentle and encouraging, even if I could tell this wasn’t probably going to work out.
The second was brash, abrasive and cutting.
But neither was a fit.
So, for now, I’m putting that goal on hold; both taught me about the current marketplace (useful) and, essentially, reminded me of the kind of person I want to do business with.
None of this, sorry to say, is unusual within the cruelly competitive world of journalism and publishing.
Pretty much every creative field I know — art, music, dance, design, film, theater — is equally filled with smart, talented, well-trained, determined thousands who want the same things we do: money, attention, a job, a gig, a contract.
In my decades in this business, I’ve been rejected so much it just feels normal — I tried for eight years before I was hired as a reporter at the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper.
I tried multiple times, never successfully, for the Alicia Patterson fellowship, (one of 14 finalists among 387 applicants that year.) The latest winners of the McGraw Prize, awarded to seasoned business writers — all three of them — beat out the 77 others who sent in their ideas.
Both of my previous books were rejected 25 times before finding a major publisher.
Whether we welcome it or not, rejection offers us information we have to process.
Simply stamping your foot, shouting”It’s not fair!” or pouting in a corner won’t get it done:
What did you fail to include?
What skills do you need to strengthen?
Could you have prepared more thoroughly?
Would additional training or education help you succeed?
Is your network powerful enough to guide, mentor and promote you?
I would never dissuade anyone from following their dreams.
I would strongly suggest having a thick, strong coat of armor — for your bank balance and ego — if you do.
The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?
While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.
(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)
Everyone wants to be a writer!
Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.
Life costs money.
I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.
Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.
Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.
But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.
Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.
The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.
As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”
I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.
So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.
It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.
It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.
This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.
Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.
Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!
The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.
Now….how to be creative?
What does that look like to you?
It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.
At the moment, which is blessedly almost unheard of, I actually have no assignments at all. That means, no income for this month. That means, (thank heaven we have one) dipping into our emergency fund. At least my husband, a freelance photo editor, does have steady work.
I’ve been fighting a cold, sleeping 3.5 hours one afternoon to give my weary body a rest — but also heading 25 miles into Manhattan to meet with friends visiting from far away: a retail expert I’m Twitter friends with and hadn’t met before, from D.C.; a former New York Times story source, who then lived in the Middle East and now lives in London and who I last saw at my birthday party in Paris in June, and a bilingual young friend I met at a writing conference in New York who’s from Montreal and is (yay!) moving to Paris.
I’m excited for her — ditching a well-paid corporate career, selling her condo and most of her belongings — and, single and bold, heading into a great new adventure. I had a life-changing year in Paris when I was 25 on a journalism fellowship so I hold tremendous affection for that city and what spending some focused time there can produce.
Next Monday I’ll meet a talented writer who lives in Mexico City and with whom I’ve only, so far, traded notes with in an on-line writers’ group. Then have coffee with another younger writer, a New Yorker back home after years living in Berlin.
So many writers’ relationships now, working alone at home or in a co-working space or library or cafe, are virtual that I’m eager to meet face to face whenever possible.
My second book
I also sent a book idea recently to an agent — whose name and phone number a writer I’ve never even met shared with me. This is, at is best, what a successful career in this business will produce — sufficient affection and respect for one another that we boost those whose work and ethics we admire.
People often wonder: How do you find an agent? Once you’re established, often by a referral like this.
To my delight, the agent called me back that same day saying: “I know your work.” Whew!
Because, honestly, there are days, weeks and years it’s too easy to feel invisible and hopeless, watching the Big Name Writers win awards and grants and fellowships and adulation, especially here in New York where people are, ahem, quite vocal about their success.
Being modest can feel weird and self-defeating.
So I burbled out my idea to this agent and he listened and said: “Tell me more.” I sent a bare-bones outline.
He didn’t like it, but said, “Let’s keep talking.” So I thought hard and brainstormed with five smart women friends, several fellow writers and a few who aren’t, to help me refine my thinking and expand it.
One of them thought the idea not useful at all, which was worth hearing — and offered an insight I hadn’t considered that was valuable and which I incorporated into the second iteration.
This book is by one of the friends whose wisdom I consulted…
I’m meeting my new agent, the sixth I’ve worked with, next week.
But, now comes even more unpaid hard work,a larger gamble for both of us, as I produce a full book proposal, which is much less literary than a hard-sell document filled with promises — our goal to win an offer from a major publisher and one big enough I can actually afford to stop most other work for a year or more. Book advances are now paid out in quarters, (thirds if you’ve got some clout), which means a long, long time between payments, from which your agent first deducts 15 percent.
So, if you’re really lucky and get, say, a $100,000 advance (rare!), you’ll net about $28,000 (pre-tax) per instalment — which, in a place like New York, really won’t even sustain a year’s living costs. I know Big Name Writers with full-time well-paid jobs who turn down a book deal because they can’t afford the drop in income.
I’m eager to write more books, though, as basic story-telling already pays poorly and, isn’t sufficiently challenging. I’ve been doing this work for decades, and want to produce deep, smart work — which very few places now have the space or budget for.
I also applied last week for a cool staff job at the Washington Post, because, what the hell? Why not? I asked a friend who’s a writer there who encouraged me, and then (deep breath) took what for me is a huge risk and asked someone for their help. She’s a Big Name Writer at the Post who I deeply admire and met in person in June 2016. We follow one another on Twitter, but that’s the depth of the relationship.
She said she would mention me to the hiring editor and say good things.
I was grateful as hell, stunned at my good fortune. It’s very difficult for me to ask others for help.
I also, being ill and exhausted, sent out some LOIs (letters of introduction) to editors, spoke to one by phone about possible assignments and emailed back and forth with several others.
Still waiting for payment for work already published.
So much of this business isn’t writing, but finding and nurturing relationships with the people — agents, editors, fellow writers, grant and foundation judges — who need to place their trust in you: to be accurate, to be ethical, to be a decent person to work with, to not miss deadline.
I listened to three interviews with writers and editors from the Longform podcast, one of them the editor of a Big Fancy Magazine which emboldened me to send him a pitch.
If you’re interested in journalism, writing, publishing, media, this series offers 277 podcasts and you will learn a lot, and gain some useful insights into who wins the Big Fancy Jobs, when, how and why.
So, even though I haven’t earned a penny this month (!) it’s actually been great.
Habits are powerful. We persist with many of them because we tend to give undue emphasis to the present. Trying something new can be painful: I might not like what I get and must forgo something I already enjoy. That cost is immediate, while any benefits — even if they are large — will be enjoyed in a future that feels abstract and distant. Yes, I want to know what else my favorite restaurant does well, but today I just want my favorite dish.
Overconfidence also holds us back. I am unduly certain in my guesses of what the alternatives will be like, even though I haven’t tried them.
Finally, many so-called choices are not really choices at all.
I finally hit bottom on two issues this week, and finally acted to try and deal with them, instead of just stewing and whining.
I live in a town north of New York City, whose main street is increasingly jammed with traffic, including 18-wheel trucks. Pedestrians have been struck and injured while in the crosswalks, which is illegal.
It’s getting worse and worse and worse.
The other day, I watched, enraged, as two drivers, in broad daylight, once more drove right through the crosswalk as I was crossing — and saw me looking right at them.
I gave them both the middle finger and went directly to the police station where I filed an official request for how many summons they issued in 2017 for this violation. (My guess? Fewer than a dozen.)
To my delighted surprise, the chief of police called me the next day and we discussed the 60 (!) summons they’d issued and how to potentially reduce the problem. I was so glad I’d done something.
I also called a friend in Canada to ask his advice and help potentially finding me and my husband full-time staff jobs there — because Canadian residents don’t have to pay for healthcare.
That alone would save us $2,000 every month.
I left Canada in 1988 and have no burning desire to re-patriate; we don’t want to sell our New York apartment and can’t rent it under co-op rules, which is a huge deterrent.
We love our town and region and would miss our life here.
I can return to Canada as a citizen, and we have yet to discover whether Jose has the right to live there with me, let alone work.
But we’re now so burdened with health insurance costs that are rising and rising and rising, and despite all our hard work, we feel increasingly frustrated and angry with our financial struggle.
We’re both full-time freelancers, living in a one bedroom apartment.
There’s no fat to cut.
Even if we choose to stay in New York, and we might, (and might have to), I already feel better for:
1) admitting these issues are driving me to my wits’ end rather than just bottling it up, as usual;
2) asking for help, which I’m always reluctant to do;
3) talking frankly with my husband about how badly this stress is affecting us individually and our marriage.
I was inspired by a New York Times column with the wise words:
Fury isn’t strategy
For me, 2018 is going to be a year of strategy and action.
It’s a shriek of outrage/grievance/shock that happens when:
Someone says the wrong thing.
Someone touches you in a way that feels aggressive.
Someone disagrees with you.
Among some younger and apparently ferociously ambitious women, I’m seeing a kind of mass fragility I — and my peers — find astonishing:
Every day, someone shrieks in fury that someone has been racist or sexist or mean to them — which they might well have, but not actually have intended as a personal attack.
Every day, someone says “You’re shaming me!” when all you’ve done is politely, if firmly, disagree with them or share an alternate view, which is now, for some, unforgivable.
Every day, though, I also hear pleas for advice, insights, mentoring.
Every day, the demand to march into HR and get them to fix it, right now.
Every day, the need to school others in how to speak and behave, including those who have the ability to hire — and fire — them.
Every day, a chorus of virtue signalling; dare to challenge or contradict the group, and you’ll be banned, shunned, blocked and bullied — for your lack of sensitivity.
This, often arising from women who have already acquired the relative privilege of a college education and/or paid employment, has rendered me and other women at the top of our professional game, women who have spent years teaching and mentoring, both mystified and repelled.
Because women who have already spent decades in the working world didn’t harbor, or share in fury, the naive fantasy that life would be easy or that it even should be.
The world is full of very sharp edges!
Anyone you meet can challenge or even threaten you, economically, politically, emotionally or physically.
Yes, life is often much more difficult when you’re a person of color, transgender or LGQTBA and the daily fight for social justice is still a necessary one.
I’m speaking of something different, something that feels both more privileged and more unlikely because of that innate power.
Many older women are second or third-wave feminists, every bit as filled with righteous indignation as anyone today ranting and raving about how terrible everything is.
Yet we’re now being lectured to by finger-wagging neophytes on how to speak and behave.
We already know that moving ahead through a male-dominated world could be hard and it still is.
We already know that situations one expects to be civil can get weird, even frightening, and they still do.
We already know, no matter our skills, credentials or experience, we’ll probably have to listen to some absolutely appalling crap and we still do.
These depressingly shared experiences could create powerful inter-generational links, but that’s not what I and my peers are seeing; instead it becomes a dialogue of the deaf and one that older women like myself eventually just walk away from.
No one deserves to be mistreated, overlooked, underpaid and ignored.
We get it!
But older professionals never enjoyed the luxury of a “safe space”, nor would it even have occurred to us — while weathering three American recessions in 20 years — to expect or demand one.
My husband, of Hispanic origin, has heard shit, socially and professionally, I can barely believe. Yet we’re both still working and achieving our goals. If we’d stood up, (as we very much wished to each time someone was rude to us), and shouted “How dare you?!” — we’d possibly have lost a well-paid, hard-won job and probably damaged our careers.
The only safe space I know of is a locked room to which only you have the key.
Talk to people living in Syria or Myanmar or Mexico — where heads literally roll in the streets — about what a “safe space” looks like to them.
There’s a phrase from the Bible, (even though I’m no ardent Christian), that I find powerful and moving: “Put on the armor of light.”
It’s every writer’s worst nightmare — to head off reporting what appears to be a cool, fun story —- and end up dead.
From The New York Times:
The Copenhagen police announced on Wednesday that a torso found this week in local waters was that of Kim Wall, a Swedish freelance journalist who disappeared after boarding a Danish inventor’s submarine.
The announcement, which followed DNA tests of samples from the torso, turned what had started as a missing-persons case into what Christian Jensen, editor in chief of Politiken, Denmark’s largest daily, called “the most spectacular murder case in Danish history.”
Her torso — missing its arms, legs and head — was found by a cyclist on the edge of Amager Island on Monday afternoon,
Kim Wall, a talented 30-year-old freelancer, educated at prestigious and demanding schools like Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia Journalism School and the London School of Economics, headed out aboard a submarine with Danish inventor Peter Madsen.
Like many ambitious journalists, she decided to do the reporting first — and sell the story (one always hopes!) later, i.e. “on spec.”
Full-time freelancers like Kim, (and me), work with no institutional protection, often with no danger training or back-up.
We hope to, and must, quickly sell our stories — as she did to The New York Times and other publications.
I didn’t know Kim, nor had I read her work, but her death — her appalling, terrifying end while at work — is hitting my tribe, journalists, and especially bold women like her who venture alone into funky places alone around the world, very hard.
Freelance work, de facto, can require a sort of bravery, initiative and decisiveness that’s unique to our industry:
No one sits around waiting for the day’s assignment from a boss.
No one revises a press release and hits “send” and calls it journalism.
No one has a paycheck, nor even a guaranteed sale, let alone a well-paid one.
We work alone, often without the witness or putative aid and protection of a fixer, translator or photographer.
Those who, like Kim often did, work overseas, must cover their own expenses and arrange all their own travel and accommodations.
And, as this story did, it demands that we trust others, often with our safety and our lives.
You gin up a great idea, and, sometimes without a definite assignment, (i.e. a sale, income, let alone your travel costs repaid, and an editor invested intellectually and financially in what we produce) — and go.
Like Kim, I’ve gone to a few places to report a story that others told me not to. Nothing as truly scary as a war zone or natural disaster, but — like her — working alone with or around men I had never met before.
At 25, I jumped into a truck with a French driver I’d never met, 10 years my senior, and traveled with him, sleeping in the truck cab every night, for eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul.
There were no cellphone then, no GPS to track our location, no Internet.
It was — as Kim’s decision to board that damned submarine — a decision I made, eagerly, on a common and basic calculation in our field:
And, for many women I know, like one who ventures repeatedly into a nation riddled with vicious crime, I made a bet.
Like female freelancers who cover war and conflict zones, places where women are often raped and slaughtered.
The same bet I made when I traveled alone, also at 25, into a small Sicilian town to report on a complex topic, not speaking a word of Italian, relying on men I had never met for translation and lodging and transportation.
The same bet I made when I walked, at dusk, into Brixton, then a no-go area of London, to interview a male squatter.
In every case, thank God, I got my story, and came home.
Safe — and alive.
We bet, each of us, every time, that we will return unharmed.
Tonight at 7pm there is a candlelight vigil being held at Columbia Journalism School, in upper Manhattan, in Kim’s honor.
If you’ve never tried working freelance — i.e. no job, no salary, no paid sick or vacation days — it can look cool.
I’ve been doing it since 2006 (and for periods before then as well), and enjoy it.
It’s rarely dull.
Here’s some of what this week has been like:
I pitched a story to The New York Times, realizing, two weeks after returning from an overheated, often non air conditioned Europe, that it’s an uncomfortable, even dangerous, situation for travelers and hotel owners.
And one only likely to worsen with climate change.
I’ve been writing for the Times since 1990, and had previously written for that specific editor, so he quickly replied to my emailed pitch — but I had barely four days in which to find all my sources, interview them and write the story.
Thanks to my active life on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, I soon found what I needed.
I’m working on a big (3,000 words) story for a local university about their school. Have been doing interviews for weeks, some by phone, some in person. It’s a challenging assignment and one I’m enjoying, but it has a lot of moving parts. Did seven interviews, in person, in one day on campus — pooped! Slept 10 hours and took the next day off entirely to recover.
During one of the interviews, heard a deeply distressing story of murder in someone’s life. I didn’t react much, which — to those who don’t know any journalists personally — can make us look cold and unfeeling. Not so! One of the keys to success as a journalist is being able to manage and control the most powerful of emotions, even in the moment, and stay focused on your goal — reporting the story. It can, and does, lead to some trauma later as you process it eventually, or don’t.
I speak fluent French, so I was asked to interpret between an editor in Alabama and a French-speaking farmer in Quebec to determine if there was enough to produce a story. There is, so I’ll be heading north to Quebec soon to report and write it.
A former client in Chicago sent me an assignment they needed done right away —- and had to turn it down because they needed it fast and, for once, I’m too busy at the moment.
I emailed editors in New York City and London to follow up on personal meetings to see if there’s work I can produce for them — no answer, so far. It’s normal for even people who know me and my work to take a while to respond. You can’t freak out or take it personally.
Pitched another idea to a new client who loved it — have to constantly be pitching ideas or the income stream dries up fast! Bills never stop arriving, funny thing.
Jose and I took a day off to explore the North Shore of Long Island, about a 2.5 hour drive from our home. In our years together, we’ve been to Paris together a few times — but never there.
Found this astonishing Spanish chest — 17th century? — in a local antique shop.