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 writing life, this week…

malled cover LOW

Still hoping to sell a third book proposal…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew.

My livelihood, like that of many full-time freelancers, is intellectual piecework. Instead of sewing pockets on jeans in a factory, I chase assignments, negotiate fees and conditions (some now paying 60 days after invoice), read, sign and amend contracts, fill out the paperwork to get paid.

I also…oh thatwrite.

The past week has been a really exhausting roller-coaster.

After agreeing to a shitty fee of $750 for 1,400 words, (ironically for an outlet focused on journalism), I turned in my story, which required six interviews and reading a new book on the subject of the piece. Endless email mis-communication ensued until the very young female editor called me — at 4:55 on Friday afternoon — to find out what was going on.

Thanks to texting and emojis and a life lived only screen-mediated, many young editors and writers now exhibit a bizarre and pronounced fear of speaking by phone. Some simply don’t know how to react, civilly, in real time.

This did not go well.

She was rude, condescending, dismissive, constantly interrupting me. Two hours later she killed the story, costing me the entire fee.

Since that shitshow, I successfully pitched another idea, an essay, to a website, got a quick rejection for a New York Times op-ed, accepted three more assignments from a specialty magazine and — to my amazement — got a green light on a story that had been widely rejected for months.

I also pitched the Financial Times, allure.com, another NYT editor and Real Simple (no go) — and wrote that time-sensitive essay in 2 days.

Losing $750 I expected means postponing a dental visit, getting a new pair of glasses, paying down credit card debt. It’s not a joke. This is not a hobby.

One of the greatest challenges, for me, is just moving on after a really bad experience. That baby editor’s behavior was appalling — but it’s not my issue.

I know the excellent skills I offer. I know the people who value them.

Whatever happens, the bills keep showing up, every month, thousands of dollars needed to pay them all, in full, on time.

Like regular people.

 

This is not a life for the fragile.

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955
“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings
Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker
The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!
Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!
Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.